The failure of an Orbital Sciences' Taurus rocket two weeks ago was offset with the wildly successful launch March 6 of a Boeing Delta-II rocket. NASA's workhorse rocket carrying the Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft. The new spacecraft was launched from the Launch Complex 17-B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The nighttime launch, which could be seen from Florida residents as far away as the Gulf Coast, followed a flawless countdown. No technical concerns or coastal weather problems affected the launch-it was literally smooth sailing from Earth to outer space.
If all goes well, Kepler will quickly start observing a small portion of the sky for four years. It will search this area of deep space for signs of rocky terrestrial planets, much like Earth, orbiting distant stars. The spacecraft will focus on a region of space that has an abundance of stars similar to our own Sun. Spacecraft instruments will then detect any dimming of incoming starlight that will indicate large (and small) planets passing in the region of space between the star and Kepler.
"Kepler is a critical component in NASA's broader efforts to ultimately find and study planets where Earth-like conditions may be present," said Jon Morse, the Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The planetary census Kepler takes will be very important for understanding the frequency of Earth-size planets in our galaxy and planning future missions that directly detect and characterize such worlds around nearby stars."
Here are some key facts, prepared by NASA's public information office, about the important Kepler mission:
•Kepler is the world's first mission with the ability to find true Earth analogs-planets that orbit stars like our sun in the "habitable zone." The habitable zone is the region around a star where the temperature is just right for water-an essential ingredient for life as we know it-to pool on a planet's surface.
•By the end of Kepler's three-and-one-half-year mission, it will give us a good idea of how common or rare other Earths are in our Milky Way galaxy. This will be an important step in answering the age-old question: Are we alone?
•Kepler detects planets by looking for periodic dips in the brightness of stars. Some planets pass in front of their stars as seen from our point of view on Earth; when they do, they cause their stars to dim slightly, an event Kepler can see.
•Kepler has the largest camera ever launched into space, a 95-megapixel array of charge-coupled devices, or CCDs, like those in everyday digital cameras.
•Kepler's telescope is so powerful that, from its view up in space, it could detect one person in a small town turning off a porch light at night.
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., is a former NASA science writer. He is NASA's Solar System Ambassador in Vermont.