Mar 5, 2009
Late tomorrow night, NASA's Kepler spacecraft will—conditions permitting—lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on its unprecedented mission to find habitable, Earth-like planets around distant stars.
The $600-million venture will train Kepler's photometer on a group of 100,000 stars several hundred to a few thousand light-years away and track them for more than three years. As the planets believed to reside there pass between their stars and Kepler's detector, the spacecraft will register a slight dip in stellar brightness. Over time these dips can be used to compile a profile of the planetary systems in Kepler's view, which, according to prevailing models of planetary formation, should include several Earth-like planets. Once astronomers know how common Earths are and where in the galaxy they can be found, follow-up missions will be able to refine their searches for extraterrestrial life.
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