NASA announced yesterday that the Kepler Telescope, a new observatory destined for one of the most important missions in astronomy, namely to find planets similar to the Earth orbiting other stars, is nearing completion in Florida. Scheduled to take off on March 5, the newest addition to the American space agency's arsenal will analyze over 100,000 stars over the course of its 3.5 year-long mission, in hope of finding periodic brightness fluctuations, which would imply that another celestial body, perhaps a planet, has passed in between the star and the observatory.
The Space Launch Complex 17-B at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station will be the point of origin for the new mission, NASA's Ames Research Center director of science Michael Bicay told reporters in Titusville, Florida, the place where the new telescope is undergoing its final tuning procedures. "A null result is as important as finding planets," the official said. The new mission will be launched onboard an unmanned Delta II delivery system, which will hopefully deliver its payload into orbit.
The most advanced instrument on the new Kepler Telescope is its 95 megapixel camera, which has to be sensitive enough to pick up changes in a star's brightness as low as 84 parts per million. For a better perspective, imagine that a planet the size of Jupiter interfering with perceived light from its star causes a 1 percent fluctuation in its brightness, which is far easier to spot from the Earth or from the orbit.
"This is a very small signal and it's very difficult to predict. The plan is to stare at this place for three years and wait for the stars to wink," said James Fanson, Project Manager, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Kepler, Pasadena, California. "There's several astrophysical phenomena that masquerade as planets. We're going to have to sort them out," Bicay added.
The most astounding result that could come from this mission would be to identify a planet orbiting its star in what is now known as a “survivability zone,” a very small area around a star, where planets orbiting on specific orbits can support the existence of liquid water, which is a basic requirement for life. On the other hand, extraterrestrial organisms that may exist out there are not necessarily based on water, as we are. So, it remains to be seen whether the Kepler Telescope will bring back important feedback.