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3/6/2009
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NASA's Kepler Mission Set To Search For Earth-Like Planets

Friday night's scheduled launch will send NASA's Kepler craft in search of Earth-size planets that orbit stars and are partly covered with water, a vital ingredient for life.

NASA plans to launch a spacecraft tonight, beginning a mission to search for other planets as large as Earth.

"This mission attempts to answer a question that is as old as time itself. Are other planets like ours out there?" Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, asked in a statement released Thursday. "It's not just a science question -- it's a basic human question."

Kepler will search for planets that orbit stars and are partly covered with water, a vital ingredient for life. If all goes as planned, it will spend more than three years with 100,000 stars in its sights. It will scan the sky for occasional reductions in the amount of starlight, which could indicate a planet has passed in front of the stars.

The Kepler mission is scheduled for liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida Friday at 10:49 p.m., EST. Nine boosters will power the Delta II rocket, which will send Kepler 115 miles above the Earth in less than 10 minutes. In just over an hour, the spacecraft will separate from the rocket and begin orbiting the sun.

"We will monitor a wide range of stars, from small cool ones -- where planets must circle closely to stay warm -- to stars bigger and hotter than the sun, where planets must stay well clear to avoid being roasted," William Borucki, principal investigator for the mission, said in a statement released Thursday. "Everything about the mission is optimized to find Earth-size planets with the potential for life, to help us answer the question: Are Earths bountiful or is our planet unique?"

NASA said that Kepler's powerful camera is the largest to ever fly in space. It has a 95-megapixel array of charge-coupled devices like those in digital cameras, and it will detect the faintest "winks" in starlight, NASA said. Its telescope is so powerful that, from its view in space, it could detect one person in a small town turning off a porch light at night.


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