What looks like a large burrito wrapped in tin foil, is designed to find habitable planets, and is sitting—inside a Delta II rocket—on Launch Pad 17-B at Cape Canaveral AFS, ready for launch tomorrow night?
The new Kepler spacecraft, the first telescope specifically designed to find planets like Earth, planets that can have life like our own in our region of the Milky Way. According to NASA, these are the objectives of Kepler:
• Determine the percentage of terrestrial and larger planets there are in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars;
• Determine the distribution of sizes and shapes of the orbits of these planets;
• Estimate how many planets there are in multiple-star systems;
• Determine the variety of orbit sizes and planet reflectivities, sizes, masses and densities of short-period giant planets;
• Identify additional members of each discovered planetary system using other techniques; and
• Determine the properties of those stars that harbor planetary systems.
In other words, the Kepler is looking for neighbours. It will be using a 0.95-meter diameter telescope, which actually is a photometer, with a very large field of view compared to other astronomical telescopes: 105 square degrees. The photometer tracks a large number of star systems at the same time, without moving, controlling the brightness levels of more than 100,000 systems. It will controlling those same 100,000 stars for the entire life of the mission, which is set to be 3.5 years. [NASA]