New Telescope To Search for Livable Planets Similar to Earth

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NASA's Kepler telescope will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida tonight with the help of a team that includes two UC Berkeley astronomers.

The mission will be the first equipped with the technology to detect Earth-sized, potentially habitable planets, researchers say.

"Our galaxy has 200 billion stars, and I'm betting that Earth-like planets exist around one percent of those stars," said UC Berkeley astronomy professor Geoffrey Marcy, an investigator for the Kepler team.

The launch will occur at 7:38 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.

"It will launch into an Earth-trailing orbit, and slowly fall behind the Earth, looking at a place at the left wing at Cygnus, and stare at the same path," said astronomy professor Gibor Basri, another investigator for the team.

Both professors advised the team on preparation and maneuvering for the mission, but did not participate in the actual construction of the telescope.

The telescope will stay in space for three and a half years, taking constant pictures of planets more than a thousand light years away, Marcy said. It will have a field of view 30,000 times larger than that of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The telescope will take pictures of 100,000 stars and monitor their brightness. A particularly dim star would indicate the presence of a planet, Marcy said.

"There will be new data of stars- about 150,000," he said. "Normally, we don't have data except for the sun."

Marcy said he is looking forward to finding habitable planets, which would require rocky surfaces and liquid water. However, he said he doubted whether the mission would detect organisms more complex than bacteria.

"Life?" Marcy said. "I think Earth planets are common, but those that lead to intelligent life like humans are rare, especially since we have a precious planet Earth."

He added that he was nervous about the possibility that the launch would not succeed. Last week, he said, another NASA satellite called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory crashed in the ocean near Antarctica, following 80 consecutive successful launches.

"I'm frightened-pins and needles. I'm scared the spacecraft won't make it to the first trailing orbit," Marcy said.

Basri said he is also feeling a bit cautious.

"Anytime you launch, it's exciting," he said. "There have been hundreds of people working on it for eight years. It's been a lot of work, and I hope nothing goes wrong."

In light of the crash last week, the team has taken extra precautions to ensure a successful launch. Technicians compared models of the telescope and the failed satellite to make sure none of the dysfunctional parts were in common.

Nevertheless, Marcy said he is enthusiastic about the discoveries the telescope could uncover.

"Aristotle wrote extensively about whether earth was at the center," Marcy said. "That's what Kepler is going to answer-whether Earth is unique, or a common type of planet."


Contact Melani Sutedja at [email protected]

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