NASA launches rocket – search for Earth-like planets begins

8 Mar 2009

The search for planets capable of sustaining human life has begun, with NASA on Friday launching a rocket containing the Kepler telescope, which will study 70 solar systems for Earth-like planets.

In a reminder of the celestial fluke that brought about the creation of Earth in the first place, Kepler will seek to find other planets and resolve the age-old question: ‘Is there anybody else out there?’

The unnamed rocket – the 339thDelta rocket launched since 1960 – will launch Kepler on a three-and-a-half-year mission to discover if there are any Earth-sized planets in existence. It took off at 10.49pm local time in Florida on Friday evening.

Once in space, engineers at NASA will spend two months calibrating Kepler’s sensitive instruments and controls before the mission truly begins.

The telescope contains a 95-megapixel camera that will focus on 100,000 out of 300,000 stars that are of a similar age, brightness and composition as the sun.

Unlike other telescopes, the spacecraft’s camera will not take a series of pictures but will continually monitor the brightness of the candidate stars to see if there is a slight dimming, denoting if planets pass in front of a star.

NASA scientists reckon there’s a 0.05pc chance of discovering Earth-like candidates. From the ground, astronomers have already found 300 star systems that hold this potential.

The telescope is named after the 17thcentury astronomer Johann Kepler, who is best known for his eponymous laws of planetary motion, which also provided the foundation’s for Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravitation.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: a NASA illustration of the Kepler mission

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years