Reminder 1: Kepler to launch Friday night!

By Phil Plait | March 5, 2009 12:06 pm
Drawing of NASA’s Kepler missions

A quick reminder: NASA’s Kepler spacecraft is due to launch Friday night at 10:50 p.m. Eastern time (3:50 UTC). I’ll post again tomorrow as another reminder, and I plan on live-tweeting the launch as well. The launch will be covered on NASA TV, too.

Kepler will stare at 100,000 stars over a long period of time to look for tiny, periodic dips in their brightnesses, indicating the presence of planets orbiting those stars. With Kepler, we could be on the verge of discovering hundreds of Earth-like planets in the galaxy.


Comments (41)

  1. I’m really jazzed about this launch — I did some work on the Earthside code that will analyze the Kepler data for false positives. I wonder which team wrapped it up — of course, budgets eventually closed down our work on it. I believe the code-base we had was sent to Germany, actually …


    Do you think we’ll find any planets suitable for life with Kepler? And I don’t mean planets which are completely Earth-like, but not too different from our own. What are the chances? My guess is that we’ll find a lot of gas giants but rocky planets that could house life, very unlikely! And let’s not forget that it’s only going to be looking at 100,000 stars, only a small amout of the total number of stars in our own galaxy.

  3. philippec

    That picture makes me think the satelite looks like a crushed, rusted beer can. Hmmm.. BEER!!!! :) Pareidolia, anyone??

    Can you tell what’s on my mind?

  4. Paul Claessen

    For those who were wondering: The launch is from Cape Canaveral Airforce Station.

  5. Cheyenne

    Now this is a cool mission! I can’t imagine how incredibly complex the camera is on that craft. Fingers crossed for a successful launch.

  6. Do we know which direction its headed after launch (besides UP) – any chance of an East coast flyby for us to see???

  7. Jeff

    “My guess is that we’ll find a lot of gas giants”

    As I recall, the star wobble method that was used to discover a lot of gas giants favors the discovery of gas giants.

    I’m psyched about this launch. Unfortunately, it will be 4 am in the morning here, so I’ll be fast asleep and unable to watch the launch live.

  8. Dean

    To the damned rocket: Please don’t fail. Please don’t fail. I’ve been looking forward to this for a LOOOOOOOOOONG time.

  9. Sili

    At the risk of getting myself slapped: Can Keppler look at anything intestering too?

    Sorry, I’m just not that big on exoplanets. I like the Swiss-armyknife-ness of Hubble.

  10. @ Sili – no, it will stare at the exact same loction in space for its entire mission. Otherwise, it might miss the quick and faint blip of a crossing planet.

  11. Greg in Austin


    If you follow Phil’s very first link, and click on “Overview” you will find the answers to your questions. But just in case,

    “The challenge now is to find terrestrial planets (i.e., those one half to twice the size of the Earth), especially those in the habitable zone of their stars where liquid water and possibly life might exist.

    The Kepler Mission, NASA Discovery mission #10, is specifically designed to survey our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover hundreds of Earth-size and smaller planets in or near the habitable zone and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets.”


  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Quazar, AFAIU the statistics will be able to determine if Earth analogs are rare or not, so the mission looks at sufficiently many stars for the purpose. It was likely a design criteria.

    Why would we think that rocky planets are unlikely?

  13. So nervous………

  14. Loaf Of Bread

    Quasar, I wouldn’t be surprised if Keplep finds a lot of gas giants too. That’s in addition to planets that are a whole lot smaller.

    As to it detecting habitable Earth like planets, essentially any planet it detects that is roughly Earth sized and orbiting its star in the habitable zone is a potential candidate.

    Given some of the advances in exoplanet research over the last few years, we could get an idea if said planets in the habitable zone have an atmosphere and whether or not it’s composition is a reasonable facsimile of the atmosphere around our planet.

    As to whether or not said planets in a habitable zone support life as we know it, well, even if we find them it is not yet possible to determine if they actually do support life of any kind.

  15. tim

    The folks at CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics deserve kudos for running mission operations for Kepler! Phil, you should watch the launch from there – 1234 Innovation Dr., in Boulder.

  16. Sili

    I know what it will do. Question was whether it could be effectively jerryrigged to something useful(ler) once the primary mission is over.

    It has a bigger mirror than Hubble, right? So what about the detectors?

  17. Crux Australis

    Is this one of the scopes to sit in one of the Lagrange points?

  18. And just think, the number of stars Kepler will be looking at are still just a tiny fraction of those in the Milky Way!

  19. worldwideweb(dot)

    There’s a pretty cool graphic interactive at the NYT on the Kepler mission.

  20. QUASAR

    @ Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    So far we haven’t discovered many rocky planets have we. And the only that I know of which has the slightest potential for life is Gliese 581c.

  21. QUASAR

    And, does anyone here think that there could be some forms of microbial life deep in the martian soil?

  22. @Sili – that is sort of like asking if your mother had any children that lived =-)

  23. Dean

    After the primary mission? I’d guess…stare at more stars. :-)

  24. Torbjörn Larsson, OM


    Hubble mirror 2.4 m D, Kepler mirror 1.4 m D.

    But AFAIU Kepler field of view 12 arcdegrees, while Hubble FOV ‘measly’ 25-50 arcseconds on various detectors. I assume Kepler is blurry but good at photometrics?!

    Btw, the Kepler site says:

    We have also proposed a two year mission extension which greatly enhances the ability to detect planets smaller than Earth and reliably detect Earth-size planets in orbits corresponding to that of Mars (2 year periods).

  25. Torbjörn Larsson, OM


    Well, first there is the observability problem for various planet sizes and orbits, already mentioned by others. But the one system that is well observed has more rocky planets and moons than gas giants. So a priori…

    But what do models of planetary system formation tell us?

  26. KC

    >Do we know which direction its headed after launch (besides UP) – any chance of an East >coast flyby for us to see???

    Unless you live far enough south, I doubt it. Remember we only usually get to see launches of the shuttle when its heading toward the space station because of its high inclination orbit.

    Kepler will be in a heliocentric orbit – Earth-like orbit around the Sun except trailing behind us.

  27. Well the media focus is on habitable planets, but transit searches ought to be able to spot some other very interesting phenomena, such as exomoons, exoplanetary ring systems (perhaps… relies on the ring system being sufficiently large, dense and favourably oriented), circumbinary and Trojan planets, plus some just plain weird objects that haven’t been predicted. Personally I find the latter category the most interesting…

  28. RaptorJedi

    Here’s a question that I have been unable to find an answer for. How long after Kepler launches will it start doing what it was built to do?

  29. It will probably start doing observations fairly quickly after launch. But there probably won’t be announcements of them finding an earth like planet (similar size to us, in the habitable zone of its star, etc) for about 3 years according to what I have read. Probably hear about a bunch of hot and fast orbiting Jupiter types first, then the harder to find smaller rocky ones later.

  30. Here’s a little astronomical humor for you:

    Q: What do Jupiter and Rush Limbaugh have in common?

    A: They’re both gas giants.

  31. FLoyd

    Even if just one in 100.000 is an Earth-like planet, that makes 1 million earth-like planets in our galaxy.

  32. Even if just one in 100.000 is an Earth-like planet, that makes 1 million earth-like planets in our galaxy.

    Oh, FSM, let them be not entirely Earth-like. A little more rationality amongst the inhabitants would be nice. RAmen.

  33. GaterNate

    LOL good call, kuhnigget. Consider that if there is an Earth-like world relatively nearby, and if that world has an intelligent civilization with their crap together slightly more that humanity (perhaps spending 10% more of their resources on science instead of war), that they probably have fleets of space telescopes of various types, and very likely already know we are here? We could be regular subject matter in some Gamma-Leporian blog.

  34. It will be 4AM here and I will stay awake waiting for the launch.
    I don’t want to miss history in the making and that is what I believe Kepler will do…to provide us with a whole new perspective about our place in the galaxy. Go Kepler Go!

  35. mojo

    Is this one of the launches you’ll be able to see from far away if it’s clear? I’m on the coast of the SC/GA border and have occasionally been able to see night launches.

  36. Jeff

    Ughhhhh. OK, fine. I’m also going to stay up late. This launch is going to be historic, I don’t want to miss it!

  37. Sili

    Oh, it is smaller. I must have had it confused with James Webb. Sorry.

    I retract my kibbitziness.

  38. Sili

    Actually, I was thinking of Herschel.

    I’ll just shut up now.

  39. Jon


    Kepler is a Discovery Program Mission which funds focused planetary science flight missions. The Kepler photometer is designed to do one thing and do it well: find transiting planets in one region of the sky. If our extended mission is funded, we’ll spend at least 6 years staring at the same 105 square degree Field of View (FOV) because that will maximize the planetary discoveries we make.

    We do have an open Guest Observer Program so that astronomers who wish to make observations of objects in our FOV can propose to do so, and the GOs have access to 3000 Long Cadence targets (30 minute integrations) and to 25 Short Cadence targets (one minute integrations). Also, once our data products are released, anyone will be able to download the raw or the calibrated data products and conduct science analysis however they wish. All the astrophysicists I know are really jazzed about our mission. We’ve never collected such precise, complete and long photometric data on such a large collection of stars. I’m as excited about the unexpected discoveries as I am about the ones we hope to make!

    Regarding how soon we begin to collect science data: there is an awful lot to do to commission and check out the spacecraft and the instrument, and we do launch with a protective dust cover on the Schmidt corrector. We’ll be collecting a significant number of dark frames before we release the cover, since we’ll never get another dark frame ever — Kepler doesn’t have a shutter. Commissioning may take as long as 60 days. We need to do this part well and do it right the first time.

    Jon, the Kepler Co-I for Data Analysis

    PS What’s big about our photometer is the size of the camera (or focal plane array). It’s composed of 42 CCDs and has 95 Mpixels. The electronics that control and read out the CCDS (and the Fine Guidance Sensor CCDs) are quite impressive — 16 layer boards, 5 board pairs (one for controlling, one for reading out and handling the data), 24 signal processing chains (amplifier stages, correlated double sample and hold, A/D converters, FPGAs to accumulate the integrations from the 6 sec readout (on the Science CCDs). It’s a huge accomplishment on Ball’s part just to get the camera built, let alone the telescope and the spacecraft.


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