On Your Mark, Get Set, Let’s Find Planets!

The checkout and calibration phase for the Kepler spacecraft has been completed, and now the telescope will begin one of the longest and most important stare-downs ever attempted. Kepler will spend the next three-and-a-half years staring at more than 100,000 stars searching for telltale signs of planets. Kepler should have the ability to find planets as small as Earth that orbit sun-like stars at distances where temperatures are right for possible lakes and oceans. “Now the fun begins,” said William Borucki, Kepler science principal investigator for the mission. “We are all really excited to start sorting through the data and discovering the planets.”

During the checkout phase scientists have collected data to characterize the imaging performance as well as the noise level in the measurement electronics. The scientists have constructed the list of targets for the start of the planet search, and this information has been loaded onto the spacecraft.

“If Kepler got into a staring contest, it would win,” said James Fanson, Kepler project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “The spacecraft is ready to stare intently at the same stars for several years so that it can precisely measure the slightest changes in their brightness caused by planets.” Kepler will hunt for planets by looking for periodic dips in the brightness of stars — events that occur when orbiting planets cross in front of their stars and partially block the light.

The mission’s first finds are expected to be large, gas planets situated close to their stars. Such discoveries could be announced as early as next year.

We’ll be eagerly awaiting!

7 Replies to “On Your Mark, Get Set, Let’s Find Planets!”

  1. If and only if those planets transit the star they orbit. It’s still a great mission, though. 😀

  2. At 10^5 stars you can be assured that a few percent will be transits.

    I’ll wait with bated breath. Let’s hope they will make the extended mission to see Mars sized planets. “Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds,…”

  3. “If Kepler got into a staring contest, it would win,”

    Sorry, but my money’s on Anan Nanak.

  4. If all the stars have Earth-like planets in orbit, Kepler should find around 500 of them, on average. Obviously not all of them will, so the number will likely be much smaller than that. I believe the mission planners are hoping for around 50, which would mean about 10% of the systems they’re staring at would have Earth-like planets.

    Obviously, we won’t know for a few years yet.

  5. Fingers crossed that Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) is successfully repaired on today’s (Sunday) spacewalk. Its super-high resolution spectra are just what’s needed to probe the constituents of planetary atmospheres on transiting planets discovered by Kepler, and to look closely at other known transiting exoplanets. STIS observations of a single transiting exoplanet provided the first characterization of an exoplanets atmosphere.

  6. @Kevin F: Kepler should also detect inner planets which are giants, even if they do not transit (such planets reflect sufficient light from their primary as to be detectable – the integrated light from the system will show a characteristic variability).

    In addition to detecting planets, Kepler will contribute to asteroseismology, has a guest observer program, a data analysis program, and there are plans to release the entire set of observations some time after the mission has ended, allowing for all sorts of analyses – and discoveries – no one has yet even thought of …

    A wonderful mission indeed.

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