Kepler Flips Its Lid; Soon Ready for Planet Hunt

Engineers successfully ejected the dust cover from NASA’s Kepler telescope last night and the space observatory will soon begin searching for Earth-like planets. “The cover released and flew away exactly as we designed it to do,” said Kepler Project Manager James Fanson from JPL. “This is a critical step toward answering a question that has come down to us across 100 generations of human history — are there other planets like Earth, or are we alone in the galaxy?”

Click here for an animation of the event.

Kepler launched on March 6, 2009 and will spend at least three-and-a-half years staring at more than 100,000 stars in our Milky Way galaxy for signs of Earth-size planets. Some of the planets are expected to orbit in a star’s “habitable zone,” a warm region where water could pool on the surface. The mission’s science instrument, called a photometer, contains the largest camera ever flown in space — its 42 charge-coupled devices (CCDs) will detect slight dips in starlight, which occur when planets passing in front of their stars partially block the light from Kepler’s view.

The telescope’s oval-shaped dust cover, measuring 1.7 meters by 1.3 meters (67 inches by 52 inches), protected the photometer from contamination before and after launch. The dust cover also blocked stray light from entering the telescope during launch — light that could have damaged its sensitive detectors. In addition, the cover was important for calibrating the photometer. Images taken in the dark helped characterize noise coming from the instrument’s electronics, and this noise will later be removed from the actual science data.

“Now the photometer can see the stars and will soon start the task of detecting the planets,” said Kepler’s Science Principal Investigator William Borucki at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. “We have thoroughly measured the background noise so that our photometer can detect minute changes in a star’s brightness caused by planets.”

At 7:13 p.m. PDT on April 7, engineers at Kepler’s mission operations center at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, Boulder, Colo., sent commands to pass an electrical current through a “burn wire” to break the wire and release a latch holding the cover closed. The spring-loaded cover swung open on a fly-away hinge, before drifting away from the spacecraft. The cover is now in its own orbit around the sun, similar to Kepler’s sun-centric orbit.

25 Replies to “Kepler Flips Its Lid; Soon Ready for Planet Hunt”

  1. Great just what we need another piece of space junk flying around in space. Why couldn’t they have just left the cover attached on the hinge but open? The back of the cover could have also been an extra solar panel for power. Why cant designers to a better job at solving the space junk problem, instead of adding to it?

  2. This is big news! This could be a day we all look back to and say, that was the beginning of our knowledge of second earth!
    Or not, of course. Just fun to hope

  3. Junk is junk no matter where it is. We have trashed our plant now were trashing the solar system.

  4. @ USSDRAKE1968: Realise that the greatest factors in satellite development are Budget and Schedule. No doubt the idea of a reusable dust cover was set aside due to these two constraints.

  5. One tiny lid drifting through the Solar System is not a problem. Space rocks miles across rarely hit us and I guarantee you nobody is out in our neck of the woods to care.

    Get your mind off Earthcentric and set it to Cosmic.

    And far more important – YAH KEPLER!

  6. This is a noble endeavor for sure. I believe that mankind is reaching a critical mass where is it time for us to cast off into the sea of stars. We cannot cling on to mother earth for much longer before she kicks us a good wallup. First we need to find likely new homes out there. Then we start building our experience here in the solar system. Then we build colonial ships like the Mayflower and the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. We’ll set out and find danger, hope and unimaginable beauty .
    Leave Earth for the animals and the four winds.

  7. Awesome to hear that Kepler made it to its target and has deployed okay – it’s incredible to think that within only a few years we may have discovered the first Earth-sized planet.

    And perhaps even a habitable one, assuming one of the terrestrials we find happens to be in a habitable zone, and we’re able to sniff the atmosphere during a transit event.

    This quote from the project manager kind of bothered me though:

    ““This is a critical step toward answering a question that has come down to us across 100 generations of human history — are there other planets like Earth, or are we alone in the galaxy?””

    A clear violation of the Copernican principle. Earth isn’t the center of the universe, nor is Earthlike life the only form of life possible.

    Even if we scour the entire galaxy and find no Earthlike planets, it doesn’t mean we’re alone, it only means we’re the only life that’s evolved under Earthlike conditins.

  8. What do we do if these Earth-type worlds are already inhabited by intelligent beings?

    What if they are aiming their telescopes at us and thinking the same thing?

  9. This project is awesome!!! I don’t doubt they will eventually find Earth size planets, but , what environment will these Earth-size
    planets be in?? Even if they find ‘promising’ planets in the right environment, it will be just that , promising. Humans will be thinking about these ‘promising’ planets for many centuries due to the vast distances between stars.

  10. “Now the photometer can see the stars and will soon start the task of detecting the planets,”
    When exactly does the telescope begin imaging?

    BTW, we have NOT trashed the Earth, there is LOTS of room for MANY more people, and we have NOT trashed the solar system. Those who believes these three myths should put their money where their mouths are and kill themselves to stop make more room for us, stop trashing the Earth and stop trashing the solar system.

  11. The dust cover/lid sure is going to look a lot like a flying saucer when it goes streaking by the ISS or as it enters into the Earths atmosphere.

  12. ^ It’s very unlikely that it will enter Earth’s atmosphere, because Kepler isn’t orbiting the Earth, it’s orbiting the Sun. The debris will likely move off into interplanetary space.

  13. Gosh Tyler- I was just getting ready to call the UFO hunters at the History Channel! This was big my chance to be noticed! Oh well crashed my dreams! Thanks!

  14. Im all for exploreing space and using satalites. I jus tthink they need to design them better and clean up the ones that dont work anymore. One lid doesnt sound like much but if every satalite up there just had one lid thats alot of lids.

  15. Great News. In just a few short months significant findings should begin to be reported. I am glad this mission has gone as planned. Kudos to the JPL and NASA. As far as space junk is concerned this is of no consequence. It is in a solar orbit not Earth oribit. As far as such space junk goes, asteroids make me nervous and comets make me downright frightened. In my honest opinion the liklihood of a comet impact is higher than generally thought due to a population of small dark comets and we will not have time to pervent one by the time we can see it. Considering that the chance of a comet strike is still extremely remote in the next thousand years.

  16. This should give us a more accurate number for two variables in the drake equation. And hopefully, make the world more anxious to get out there and explore. Fingers crossed.

  17. Why, half the time, when I try to post something, do I get “undefined,” and no sign that my post went through?

  18. … and I can’t look at pages of previous posts, ALL of the time…. and it happened suddenly, from on moment to the next.

    server problems? right on target for the long weekend, in accordance with Murphy’s Law?

  19. and my comments don’t show up until after I reload the page, even though the page tells me that my comment has been posted.

  20. On some thread it was mentioned that deleting cookies fixed things. I deleted all cookies (it’s easy in FF) and now I’m able to view previous pages of comments. Using latest FF 3.0.8.

  21. Thanks ND, that fixed the problem.

    It did lead to an interesting coincidence though. For the last several week my weekly scan using Norton AntiVirus has flagged a tracking cookie which I’ve had it delete without checking for details. The scan started not long after I deleted cookies from universetoday, guess what, no tracking cookie flagged this week. Don’t know if this means anything but the site managers may want to look into it.

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