NASA’s mission to find Earth-like planets in the Cygnus-Lyra region of our Milky Way galaxy is shifting into the next gear. The Kepler space telescope has taken first images, which show millions of stars. NASA plans to survey more than 100,000 of them over the next three years.
"Kepler's first glimpse of the sky is awe-inspiring," said Lia LaPiana, Kepler's program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "To be able to see millions of stars in a single snapshot is simply breathtaking."
One new image from Kepler shows its entire field of view and mission target, which is equivalent to two side-by-side dips of the Big Dipper. The regions contain an estimated 14 million stars.
Two other views focus on just one-thousandth of the full field of view. One image shows the NGC 6791 cluster of stars located about 13,000 light-years from Earth. The other image zooms in on a region containing a star, called Tres-2, with a known Jupiter-like planet orbiting every 2.5 days.
The Kepler mission is expected to last for about three years. NASA hopes the telescope will identify hundreds of planets that are at least the size of Earth orbiting distance stars which are much like our own sun in energy output, luminosity and mass. The telescope will focus on the potentially habitable zone within their space and "could find dozens of worlds like ours." However, NASA also mentioned that Kepler may not find any such "Earths" - especially if they are rare.
To find the planets, Kepler will stare at one large expanse of sky for the duration of its lifetime, looking for periodic dips in starlight that occur as planets circle in front of their stars and partially block the light. Its 95-megapixel camera, the largest ever launched into space, can detect tiny changes in a star's brightness of only 20 parts per million, NASA said.
"Everything about Kepler has been optimized to find Earth-size planets," said James Fanson, Kepler's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Our images are road maps that will allow us, in a few years, to point to a star and say a world like ours is there."
Scientists and engineers will spend the next few weeks calibrating Kepler's science instrument, the photometer, and adjusting the telescope's alignment to achieve the best focus. Once these steps are complete, the planet hunt will begin, NASA said.
"We've spent years designing this mission, so actually being able to see through its eyes is tremendously exciting," said Eric Bachtell, the lead Kepler systems engineer at Ball Aerospace & Technology Corp. in Boulder, Colo. Bachtell has been working on the design, development and testing of Kepler for nine years.
Kepler is a NASA Discovery mission. Ames is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. JPL manages the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is responsible for developing the Kepler flight system and supporting mission operations.