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STS-120 day 2 highlights

Flight Day 2 of Discovery's mission focused on heat shield inspections. This movie shows the day's highlights.

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STS-120 day 1 highlights

The highlights from shuttle Discovery's launch day are packaged into this movie.

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STS-118: Highlights

The STS-118 crew, including Barbara Morgan, narrates its mission highlights film and answers questions in this post-flight presentation.

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STS-120: Rollout to pad

Space shuttle Discovery rolls out of the Vehicle Assembly Building and travels to launch pad 39A for its STS-120 mission.

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Dawn leaves Earth

NASA's Dawn space probe launches aboard a Delta 2-Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral to explore two worlds in the asteroid belt.

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Dawn: Launch preview

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‘Earth-seeking’ Kepler

ready for launch

BY KULVINDER SINGH CHADHA

ASTRONOMY NOW

Posted: 23 February, 2009

The first space mission with the capability of finding Earth-like planets is ready for launch on 5 March at 15:48 GMT.

Kepler is ready for a 5 March launch.


Kepler, named after the German astronomer who discovered a relationship between the planets’ orbital periods and their distance from the Sun, will look at 100,000 Sun-like stars simultaneously with the hope of finding a few dozen planets that are similar to Earth. It is the first time that terrestrial planet searches have been conducted this way before (see Kepler’s quest for other Earths, in the current issue of Astronomy Now).


Crucially, though a handful of rocky ‘super earths’ have been discovered recently, Kepler’s observation time of three and a half years will allow it to find a potential ‘earth’ in a star’s habitable zone. Our Earth is in the so-called ‘goldilocks’ zone where its distance from the Sun is just right for liquid water (and thus life) to exist. Every habitable zone is unique to the star in question, but a Sun-like star is likely to have one that’s similar to our own Sun.

“The planetary census Kepler takes will be very important for understanding the frequency of Earth-sized planets in our Galaxy and planning future missions that directly detect and characterize such worlds around nearby stars,” says Astrophysics Division Director Jon Morse at NASA headquarters in Washington D.C.

Kepler will search in this region of the Milky Way for Earth-like planets. Each rectangle represents a CCD element of Kepler's photometer. Image: Carter Roberts/Eastbay Astronomical Society.

Students in the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado in Boulder are being given the unique opportunity to helm the controls of Kepler after launch. “It's exciting to know our controllers will be the first people to see the data from Kepler, even if we are not involved in the analysis,” says LASP Mission Operations Director Bill Possel.

Thirty-six students and staff will be involved in a gruelling 24-hour, seven-day-a-week monitoring of the spacecraft for two months as it settles into an ‘Earth-trailing’ orbit around the Sun. Once Kepler is in its main, planet-seeking mode, the mission controllers will then contact the spacecraft twice a week for a ‘health check’. As Possel says, “This will be very demanding for the students. We are the first line of defence in monitoring the health of the spacecraft, and this check-out period will be critical.” As well as this close monitoring, Kepler will be pointed towards the Earth so that it can transmit data to LASP mission control via NASA’s Deep Space Network.


LASP will be working closely with Ball Aerospace Technologies who built Kepler’s primary instrument – its one-metre telescope with CCD sensors. The students at LASP may be amongst the first human beings to detect an Earth-like, life-bearing extrasolar planet. Josh Hecht of Lakewood Colorado may be one of them. “Before I came to LASP I was building spacecraft and now I'm controlling them.” He says.


Prospective students have to go through a rigorous ten-week summer course followed by practical and written exams before they can be certified as qualified satellite operators. LASP typically hires ten to fifteen second-year undergraduates a year for this training. Possel poignantly adds that, “It can be a tough duty for students, providing care and feeding to these satellites on a Friday night when their friends are out on the town.”

However few opportunities can be as satisfying as looking after a planet-seeking spacecraft. And afterwards, the students’ skills will be in high demand. As Hecht says, “With this kind of experience I'm hopeful I can eventually go to work for NASA or go directly into the space industry.”


To keep up date with the mission as it progresses, go to http://spaceflightnow.com

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