Friday, March 06, 2009

NASA's 'most exciting mission', the hunt for another Earth

Tonight at 10:50, NASA's Kepler prope lifts off on the shoulders of a Delta 2 rocket in search of another Earth. (NY Times) Not necessarily life, but a rocky planet hovering around a star like our Sun in the habitable, "Goldilocks" zone where water can exist.

Kepler project manager James Fanson called this, "the most exciting mission I've worked on." Really? He put it in perspective elegantly. "Are there other worlds like ours? The question has come down to us from 100 generations. We get to answer it. I find that tremendously exciting.”

Pound360 does to.

The Kepler probe is armed with a 55-inch telescope and 95-million-pixel camera. For three years at a time, it will stare at the same 10-degrees of space (equivalent to 20 full moons) looking for "telltale blips when a planet crosses in front." The patch of space Kepler will be focused on includes the constellation Cygnus and Lyra. For the first year, Kepler will track about 170,000 stars, and then narrow it down to 100,000.

Since 1995, 340 exoplanets have been discovered. But due to the limitations of current equipment and detection methods, most are massive, hot-Jupiters or big rocky planets (the smallest one is three-times the size of Earth). But Kepler's gear and deep-space perch should change all that.

(Image of Kepler probe being prepared for mission by NASA)

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.