Kepler Science Starting Soon

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Frank Morring, Jr.

Planetary scientists are awaiting the first transmission of science data from NASA's Kepler planet-finding mission to arrive on June 18, after the spacecraft has spent more than a month staring at a stretch of sky in the Cygnus and Lyra constellations.

Kepler is seeking tiny variations in the light reaching its 1.4-meter (4.6-foot) Schmidt telescope. Science data collection started May 12, after a 60-day checkout period. Researchers at Ames Research Center in California are pleased with the calibration data collected, which revealed "hundreds" of variable stars and binary stars eclipsing each other.

The spacecraft is staying in touch with controllers via the Deep Space Network, sending back health data that show it keeping a stable attitude except when its reaction wheels are desaturated every three days or so.

From its "drift-away" orbit around the sun, the spacecraft's photometer can detect variations in light as small as 20 parts per million. The instrument will be able to register the flickers that occur when an extrasolar planet passes in front of its star.

Once the science data start coming down, scientists expect to begin finding many stars like the one designated TrES-2, which has a so-called "Hot Jupiter" planet crossing in front of it every 2.5 days. But it probably will take years to isolate much smaller Earth-like planets orbiting their stars in the "habitable zone" where water can be in its liquid state. Finding those stars is the objective of the mission.

Artist's concept: NASA

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