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NASA is preparing to launch the Kepler space telescope to help answer a question that has boggled the minds of astronomers for centuries: is Earth the only habitable planet in the galaxy?
"This mission attempts to answer a question that is as old as time itself -- are other planets like ours out there?" said Ed Weiler, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
"It's not just a science mission, it's an historical mission."
Kepler will stare at the same spot in space for three and a half years, taking in about 100,000 stars around the Cygnus and Lyra constellations of the Milky Way.
The massive telescope is scheduled to launch atop a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on Friday at 10.48 pm (2.48pm Saturday AEDT).
At a cost of nearly $A934 million , it will be the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's first mission in search of Earth-like planets orbiting suns similar to ours, at just the right distance and temperature for life-sustaining water to exist.
The telescope will be hunting for relatively small planets that are neither too hot nor too cold, are rocky and have liquid water -- essential life-sustaining conditions -- explained William Borucki, Kepler's Principal Investigator based at NASA's Ames Research Center in California.
"If we find that many, it certainly will mean that life may well be common throughout our galaxy, that there is an opportunity for life to have a place to evolve," Borucki said.
"If none or only a few of these planets are found, it might suggest that habitable planets like Earth are very rare and Earth may be a lonely outpost for life."
Equipped with the largest camera ever launched into space -- a 95-megapixel array of charge-coupled devices (CCDs) -- the Kepler telescope is able to detect the faint, periodic dimming of stars that planets cause as they pass by.
"If Kepler were to look down at a small town on Earth at night from space, it would be able to detect the dimming of a porch light as somebody passed in front," according to Kepler Project Manager James Fanson.
This is no small feat.
"Trying to detect Jupiter-size planets crossing in front of their stars is like trying to measure the effect of a mosquito flying by a car's headlight," Fanson said.
"Finding Earth-sized planets is like trying to detect a very tiny flea in that same headlight."
Kepler's discoveries ``may fundamentally alter humanity's view of itself,'' Jon Morse, astrophysics division director at the US space agency's Washington headquarters, told a press conference last month.
"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."
Ever since astronomers first turned their telescopes to the sky, humans have been searching for other planets. But the small size of planets compared to stars has complicated the task.
Only eight planets have been found in our solar system -- Pluto is now considered a mere planetoid.
Since 1995, some 337 planets have been found orbiting around stars outside our solar system, but they are all bigger than Earth and do not have Earth-like conditions that make life possible.
Originally posted by franspeakfree
if you look at the time frame of when they say the study will conclude this will take us directly to 2012. the year of disclosure.
Originally posted by smokingman2006
So Nasa is looking for another Earth
may be to the fact that they are starting to realise that we are to many in numbers for just one Earth to support us all in style.
Originally posted by broli
I don't get something. If it's only the faint change of light of a star when planet passes by it. How the heck are they going to say anything at all besides its relative size and maybe mass. Or do they have another ultra zoom lens when they found something of interest?
Originally posted by Whisper67
This rocket launch will be in about 40 minutes...bah, that's during the last 10 minutes of Battlestar Galactica.
I'm such a nerd!