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The Kepler mission: A 60-second primer

By Matthew Shaer / September 18, 2009



Among the most frequently searched terms this morning was Kepler, a reference to the NASA telescope sent hurtling into space in March.

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But what exactly is the Kepler mission? In short, Kepler is the first concerted search for earth-like planets in the habitable zone surrounding our galaxy. According to Patricia Boyd, a NASA program scientist, "The Kepler mission is a huge step forward in answering the question what is our place in the universe." (See video below.)

The Kepler telescope is named after the German scientist and mathematician Johannes Kepler. During the 17th century, Kepler published a series of highly influential papers on planetary motion and astronomy. Kepler's writings are often credited with having provided the foundation for later work by Issac Newton.

The Kepler observatory blasted into orbit on March 6, atop a Delta II rocket. It began sending transmissions to NASA headquarters in June. If all goes according to plan, the observatory will be in space for four years, during which time it will observe tens of thousands of stars. NASA scientists, meanwhile, will be watching for a slight dimming in the light from those stars.

The dimming could mean planets. And planets could mean life in outer space.

So has the Kepler been successful? Yes, actually. In August, the telescope has detected the atmosphere of a giant gas planet called HAT-P-7. According to NASSA, HAT-P-7 was previously known to scientists. Still, the new measurements from the Kepler Mission are exceedingly precise:

[T]hey show a smooth rise and fall of the light between transits caused by the changing phases of the planet, similar to those of our moon. This is a combination of both the light emitted from the planet and the light reflected off the planet. The smooth rise and fall of light is also punctuated by a small drop in light, called an occultation, exactly halfway between each transit. An occultation happens when a planet passes behind a star.

In a statement, David Koch, deputy principal investigator of NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., heralded the discovery. "This early result shows the Kepler detection system is performing right on the mark," he said. "It bodes well for Kepler's prospects to be able to detect Earth-size planets."

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