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An unmanned Nasa mission to search the sky for Earth-like planets with the potential to host life has launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The Kepler telescope will orbit the Sun to watch a patch of space thought to contain about 100,000 stars like ours. It will look for the slight dimming of light from these "suns" as planets pass between them and the spacecraft.
"This is a historical mission; it's not just a science mission," said Dr Edward Weiler, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at Nasa. "I maintain that it really attacks some very basic human questions that have been part of our genetic code since that first man or woman looked up into the sky and asked the question: 'are we alone?'."
Robert J Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning science fiction writer.
We already know that our galaxy is teeming with planets - that was the first step in dethroning us from being the only abode of intelligent life. Kepler takes us on the next step: determining if many of those planets are Earth-like. After that, we need to determine if such planets have life, and then if that life is intelligent. Still there are only two possible answers to the question of whether other Earth-like worlds exist - and whichever answer we get will be astonishing.
Dr Michael Perryman, Senior Adviser, European Space Agency.
But is life as we know it common or unique? Earth's circumstances are really far too special to be easily replicated - there are so many coincidences, chances and conspiracies that seem to be needed for life to take hold and thrive. Perhaps primitive life forms could exist out there amongst the almost infinity of worlds that probably exist, but as for intelligent life I'm putting my money on the fact that in the whole Universe, we are pretty much unique.
Brother Guy Consolmagno, Curator, Vatican Observatory.
I would be delighted if other Earths harbouring intelligent life were discovered. For most people, however, it would be nothing more than a nine-day wonder. I think that we've lived with the idea so much, from speculations by scientists to creatures in science fiction movies, that the human race is already well used to the idea that we are not alone. We need to look beyond ourselves – that's what religion does when it's done right and what astronomy does when it's done right.
Dr Steven J Dick, Astronomer and Chief Historian, Nasa Source for the four extracts
We have known for a long time that we are not the centre of the Universe, the question now is whether biologically we are central. It's all we have left. Even if intelligent life were discovered, we would remain unique in terms of morphology and form. The chances are another civilisation would be more advanced than us because of the age of the Universe and the fact that our species is comparatively young.
My sense of enthusiasm is further diminished by the knowledge that it's scheduled to begin looking for Earth-type planets in 3 years.