Kepler mission update: first light achieved, mission to start in a few weeks

Friday, April 17, 2009

First light!

This is the region of sky where Kepler will be hunting for planets, an area containing 14 million stars but where 100,000 of them are thought to be good candidates for having planets. Nevertheless, this is just a very tiny portion of a single galaxy out of about 200 billion others, so even though it expects to turn up dozens and dozens of Earth-like planets don't make the mistake of thinking that this will be at all comprehensive; it's simply the best place to begin looking.

This image was taken a day after the dust cover was jettisoned and Kepler is still having its instruments calibrated, but once that is done it'll be time to start the primary mission. I assume that we'll start seeing reports of planets within two months of the primary mission, but these will be hot Jupiters orbiting very close to their star, probably a red dwarf. Those planets aren't even a fraction as interesting as Earth-like planets will be, but they will keep Kepler in the news over the next while, and probably about six months to a year from the start of the primary mission we'll start to see announcements of more interesting planets a bit farther out from their red dwarf stars, in or close to the habitability zone.

Also don't forget (as one poster on space.com pointed out in a comment before) that even if you're of the belief that tidal locking in a planet around a red dwarf star would somehow mean that it couldn't contain life, an Earth-sized moon around a larger planet within the habitability zone wouldn't be tidally locked to the red dwarf star and thus would have cycles of day and night.

Kepler's field of view can also be seen here:

Note that exceptionally bright stars are kept either entirely out or as close to the edge as possible in order that they not interfere with the fainter light from other stars.

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