“Search for Earth’s Twin” –Is the End of the Kepler Mission Imminent?


Is the USA walking away from a mission that hopes to answer one the the truly great questions of the 21st Century: Are we alone in the Universe?

According to widespread rumor, word has leaked out that the Obama administration intends to terminate NASA’s planetary exploration program. The Mars Science Lab Curiosity, being readied on the pad, will be launched, as will the nearly completed small MAVEN orbiter scheduled for 2013, but that the now-orbiting Kepler Telescope will be turned off in midmission, stopping it before it can complete its goal of finding potential twin Earths.

The Kepler space telescope has uncovered 140 candidate planets the size of Earth circling other stars, potentially reshaping our view of the universe. Launched in March 2009, Kepler's sensitive camera stares at a field of stars in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. The telescope looks for tiny dips in each star's brightness, a sign something is passing between the star and the Kepler spacecraft.

Harvard's Dimitar Sasselov noted the targets were just candidates, but he said the data points to an exciting possibility. "The statistical result is loud and clear," Sasselov said. "And the statistical result is that planet like our own Earth are out there. Our own Milky Way galaxy is rich in these kind of planets."

After 2013, America’s amazing career of planetary exploration, which ran from the Mariner probes in the 1960s through the great Pioneer, Viking, Voyager, Pathfinder, MarsGlobalSurveyor, MarsOdyssey, Spirit, Opportunity, MarsReconnaissanceOrbiter, Galileo and Cassini missions, will come to an end.

Additionally, the plan from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) also leaves Hubbles successor, the Webb Telescope, the agency’s flagship, which promises fundamental breakthroughs in our understanding of the laws of the universe, not sufficiently funded to allow successful completion.

Kepler has so far found five extrasolar planets, all of which are massive "hot Jupiters" about the size of the gas giant planets in our own solar system. NASA scientists hope to announce more planets this winter, according to William Borucki, Principal Investigator at NASA Ames Research Center.

Before the mission launched, Kepler officials advertised finding at least 50 Earth-sized planets inside habitable zones, assuming such worlds are common.

Scientists released Kepler data on more than 150,000 stars in June, including about 300 stars with planetary candidates. Kepler officials retained data on approximately 400 stars to do their own follow-up observations with ground telescopes this summer.

"We found a lot of candidates," Borucki said. "Many of them are smaller than Neptune-sized, and that's wonderful."

The data only covers 43 days of observations because it takes about four months to process observations into usable formats.

The Daily Galaxy via washingtontimes.com and spaceflightnow.com


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