Kepler mission blasts off in search of Earth-like planets

An artist’s rendition of Kepler

NASA’s Kepler mission, which will search Earth-like planets, was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral on Friday at 3:49 pm GMT.

Kepler – named after the German 17th century astrophysicist – is designed to find the first Earth-size planets orbiting stars at distances where water could pool on the planet’s surface. Liquid water is believed to be essential for the formation of life.

“It was a stunning launch,” said Kepler Project Manager James Fanson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

“Kepler will help us understand if our Earth is unique or if others like it are out there,” he added.

Engineers acquired a signal from Kepler at 12:11am on Saturday, after it separated from its spent third-stage rocket and entered its final sun-centred orbit, trailing 1,500 kms behind Earth.

The spacecraft is generating its own power from its solar panels.

“Kepler now has the perfect place to watch more than 1,00,000 stars for signs of planets,” said William Borucki, the mission’s principal investigator at NASA’s Ames Research Centre at Moffett Field, California.

Engineers have begun to check Kepler to ensure it is working properly, a process called “commissioning” that will take 60 days.

After that, the first planets to roll out on the Kepler “assembly line” are expected to be the portly “hot Jupiters” – gas giants that circle close and fast around their stars.

Neptune-size planets will most likely be found next, followed by rocky ones.

Earth-sized planets, however – orbiting stars like our sun at distances where surface water could exist – would take at least three years to discover and confirm.

Ground-based telescopes also will contribute to the mission by verifying some of the finds.

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