NASA’s Kepler Mission Ready for Launch

Article written: 19 Feb , 2009
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015



NASA’s Kepler spacecraft is ready to be moved to the launch pad today and will blast off within weeks, with a mission to address an age-old question: Are we alone?

Kepler is scheduled to blast into space from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard a Delta II rocket on March 5 at 10:48 p.m. eastern time (7:48 p.m. Pacific). It is the first mission with the ability to find planets like Earth — rocky planets that orbit sun-like stars in a warm zone where liquid water could be maintained on the surface. If Earth-sized and slightly larger planets are as common around other stars as some astronomers suspect, Kepler could spy hundreds of them within the next few years.

If so, “life may well be common throughout our universe,” said William Borucki, NASA’s principal investigator for Kepler science, who spoke about the mission Thursday afternoon at a NASA press conference. “If on the other hand we don’t find any, that will be another profound discovery. In fact it will mean there will be no Star Trek.”


The Kepler mission will spend three and a half years surveying more than 100,000 sun-like stars in the Cygnus-Lyra region of our Milky Way galaxy.  Its telescope is specially designed to detect the periodic dimming of stars that planets cause as they pass by. Some star systems are oriented in such a way that their planets cross in front of their stars, as seen from our Earthly point of view. As the planets pass by, they cause their stars’ light to slightly dim, or wink.

The telescope can detect even the faintest of these winks, registering changes in brightness of only 20 parts per million. To achieve this resolution, Kepler will use the largest camera ever launched into space, a 95-megapixel array of charged couple devices, known as CCDs.

“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,” James Fanson, Kepler project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a press release. During the briefing he added that the resolution is “akin to measuring a flea as it creeps across the headlight of an automobile at night. That’s the level of precision we have to achieve.”

Fanson added that Kepler, at a cost of about $500 million, is “the most complex piece of space flight hardware ever built” by the Boulder, Colorado-based Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.

The exoplanet research field has already proven exciting, Borucki said. Just over three hundred exoplanets have been detected so far, most of them gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn because those are the easiest to spot with pre-Kepler instruments. Already, the known exoplanets are an eclectic bunch.

“We’re finding planets that [would] float like foam on water,” Borucki said. “We’re finding planets with the density of lead.” And whereas researchers were expecting planet with orderly, circular orbits and sizes that increased with distances from stars, they’re finding a chaotic mix of behaviors — eccentric orbits, and giant, gaseous worlds so close to their parent stars that they complete full orbits within days.

By staring at one large patch of sky for the duration of its lifetime, Kepler will be able to watch planets periodically transit their stars over multiple cycles, allowing astronomers to confirm the presence of planets and use the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, along with ground-based telescopes, to characterize their atmospheres and orbits. Earth-size planets in habitable zones would theoretically take about a year to complete one orbit, so Kepler will monitor those stars for at least three years to confirm the planets’ presence.

The first objects likely to be reported will be the Jupiter- and Saturn-sized planets, and gradually — as confirmations roll in and detections get more focused — Neptune and then Earth-sized detections will be more likely to emerge, said exoplanet hunter Debra Fischer of San Francisco State University in California, who is not directly involved with the mission.

“We have a good chance of finding Mars-size planets, and a possibility of finding Mercury-sized planets” with Kepler, she said. “We don’t think we can do better than that.”

The scientists are in no rush to announce new discoveries until they’re “bulletproof,” they said — which could translate into years of suspense for the world’s Trekkies.

“We don’t want to have false discoveries,” Borucki said. “We want to be sure when we say it’s an earth, its an earth.”

Source: NASA teleconference and press release.

16 Responses

  1. Salacious B. Crumb says

    If so, “life may well be common throughout our universe,” said William Borucki, NASA’s principal investigator for Kepler science, who spoke about the mission Thursday afternoon at a NASA press conference. “If on the other hand we don’t find any, that will be another profound discovery. In fact it will mean there will be no Star Trek.”

    Isn’t this sitting on the fence? Better still he can’t be wrong!

  2. LLDIAZ says

    One question though why that spot in the sky whats so different?

  3. LLDIAZ says

    Its called being diplomatic!
    Never commit to any answer so in the future you could always say “I told you so”

  4. robbi says

    I don’t doubt Kepler will eventually find many Earth size worlds,the problems will be the distances and type of star (some of those G stars gets ‘crabby’ in old age, while some youthful G stars has too much vim and too ‘feisty’ to let any life start up) If any are in the ‘goldilocks’ zone, well, that’s another thing!!-even here, this does not prove or disprove some type lifeforms lives there.!!
    That will be far into the future!!!

  5. Tom says

    Hello… hello… hello
    Is there anybody out there
    Just nod if you can hear me
    Is there anyone at home

  6. Salacious B. Crumb says

    LLDIAZ Says:
    “Its called being diplomatic!
    Never commit to any answer so in the future you could always say “I told you so” ”

    Yeah, true, but it is really newsworthy ??

  7. Farcall says

    “…There will be no Star Trek.” Now I grant you that would be disappointing, but it would still leave wide open Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation and Empire” universe. Not a bad alternate outcome – if we ever get serious about colonizing space. And that’s a *big* if!

  8. Astrofiend says

    I love you Kepler.

  9. Spectre says

    It will be great once this thing is up and running and bolsters our ever-increasing list of other worlds throughout the cosmos.

    I’m curious though, how soon might we have the technology to detect or even image unknown worlds around our nearest celestial neighbors like the Alpha Centauri system?

    And could Kepler provide even more information about known exoplanets like more accurate atmospheric readings?

  10. Conic says

    Spectre we have it or will soon have it. Depending on what you mean and which part of your question.

    We have already taken images of planets. We will eventually make more. Maybe with the JWST. Detect them? Well thats why you are reading this article right? We are launching the best planet finder to date.

  11. robbi says

    I am also certain the Kepler will find Earth type worlds in ‘odd’ configuration, 2 Earth size worlds with equal mass rotating about a center point with a 3 day revolution in the ‘just right goldelocks’ zone and other very odd configurations= I think I will mess with my simulators and see the results and place a few ‘large moons’ to see what chaos I can conjour up lol

  12. robbi says

    Although we haven’t found anything yet and the risk of junk is with us, eventually the Kepler and more advanced detecting devices will most likely find Earth type planets in a zoo type configurations. I wouldn’t be surprized there is ‘main’ 1.1 Earth mass body in the ‘a little too hot zone’ with 1 Earth mass 60 degrees behind and 1 earth mass 60 degrees ahead or the Lagrangian points. In the same system in the ‘just right’ zone is 2 Earth mass bodies orbiting around the central gravity point in 12 hours or so!. The 3rd set is set out further in the same Star, this time, 2 Earth mass bodies in a co-orbital
    config and swaps orbits every so often.If we think we saw something with Saturn and think this is the best nature can do, well, nature will say if you think you saw the best, well, the best is yet to come! We could be in for quite a surprize how Earth mass bodies can be arranged!! I have no idea how long such a ‘zoo’ can last, but I would not want to be in those co-orbital worlds!
    I play around with this quite simple solar type system simulator, and things eventually flys out!!!

  13. Joe Kepler says

    How long will it take from Liftoff to get Kepler into it’s final orbital position? And how long before data collection will start?

  14. DI-KEY says


  15. Joseph Richmond says

    I am so excited about this mission I have been waiting very patiently to finally see it get launched! Kepler is great, its too bad that there are many people who think this mission isn’t that exciting. This is one of the most profound missions thus-far that NASA has launched! Go Kepler, find me an

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