- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 7, 2009

E.T., phone home. Or at least phone Kepler, which blasted off from Pad 17-B at Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Friday night with a distinctively different mission.

The bus-sized NASA spacecraft is the world’s first attempt to find habitable planets - with water, warmth and all the comforts of Earth.

“This mission attempts to answer a question that is as old as time itself: Are other planets like ours out there?” said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for the space agency’s Science Mission. “It’s not just a science question. It’s a basic human question.”

And the humans are already onto it.

Kepler is plugged into social media. The spacecraft has its own Facebook page, and will Twitter online about its adventures in the friendliest of terms (http://twitter.com/nasakepler) - joining 27 other NASA space missions that also “tweet” about the cosmos in 140 characters or less.

Suggestions for new planet names were already coming in from Kepler’s Earthbound fans even before blastoff, which was set for 10:49 p.m. Friday. “Sagan” and “Hawking” were among the contenders.

“Thank u all 4 your best wishes on my voyage. Can’t wait to leave Earth’s gravity and head towards my orbit,” Kepler twittered amiably back.

For all the gravitas and complexity of its mission, Kepler itself is fairly straightforward. The simple, drum-shaped craft will remain in an isolated orbit behind the Earth, relative to the sun, for about 3 1/2 years, monitoring a select patch of 100,000 stars in the Cygnus-Lyra region of our Milky Way galaxy. Kepler has no moving parts, save for a few “reaction wheels” to correct its course if needed.

But what an eye.

Kepler’s payload includes a telescope so powerful that, from its perch in the heavens, “it could detect one person in a small town flicking off a porch light at night,” according to NASA’s mission statement. Also on board: the largest camera ever sent into space, devised to detect the faint “winks” - or signatures - of small, promising planets.

Scientists are interested in limited size - the planet of choice should be from half the size of Earth to about twice its size. That’s still relatively diminutive in the gargantuan reaches of space, though.

“Trying to detect Jupiter-sized planets crossing in front of their stars is like trying to measure the effect of a mosquito flying by a car’s headlight,” said project manager James Fanson, “Finding Earth-sized planets is like trying to detect a very tiny flea in that same headlight.”

The real key is H20, said principal investigator William Borucki, who has been working on the project for 17 years.

“The habitable zone is where we think water will be. If you can find liquid water on the surface, we think we may very well find life there,” Mr. Borucki said, explaining that temperature is also paramount.

“It’s the ‘Goldilocks’ zone - not too hot, not too cold, just right for life,” he added. “Everything about the mission is optimized to find Earth-sized planets with the potential for life, to help us answer the question: Are Earths bountiful or is our planet unique?”

While NASA has described the search for habitable planets as a Holy Grail in past years, the realities of the search are well under way.

Alexander Wolszczan, a radio astronomer at Penn State University, discovered the “first true extrasolar planet” beyond our own solar system in 1994. A decade later, President Bush designated the search for habitable planets as an official future NASA objective.

The agency has methodically plotted out a course.

There are five active projects that are considered “exoplanet missions,” at least in part - including the Hubble Space Telescope.

Kepler is one of six further missions planned to hone in on the possible whereabouts of E.T. - or at least a microbe or two.

The first to be launched after Kepler is the Terrestrial Planet Finder, which has been under development at NASA since 1999. It features an array of telescopes and spectographs to travel through space in handsome formation, seeking “biosignatures” of likely life-sustaining planets. Launch is not scheduled until 2014.

Still, NASA has some big plans, if funding and research work in concert with one another. The follow-up mission is called “Life Finder.”

Kepler, meanwhile, was scheduled to take 63 minutes to reach its orbital destination - its progress charted by global press seemingly more intrigued with the mission than the upcoming space shuttle launch on Wednesday.

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