BY DR EMILY BALDWIN
Posted: 16 April, 2009
NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has opened its eyes and blinked at the rich star field where it will search for extraterrestrial planets like Earth.
Kepler wakes up in its new home and takes in a full field of view in the constelllations Cygnus and Lyra. Star cluster NGC 6791 and a star with known planet TrES-2 are identified. Image: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech.
“Kepler’s first glimpse of the sky is awe-inspiring,” says Kepler program executive Lia LaPiana. “To be able to see millions of stars in a single snapshot is simply breathtaking.”
One of the first images reveals Kepler’s entire field of view covering 100 square degrees and containing some 14 million stars, 100,000 of which have been selected as ideal candidates for planet hunting. Two other views focus on small portions of Kepler’s hunting ground, one of which contains a star called TrES-2, already known to harbour a Jupiter-like planet orbiting its host every 2.5 days.
“It’s thrilling to see this treasure trove of stars,” says William Borucki, science principal investigator for Kepler. “We expect to find hundreds of planets circling those stars, and for the first time, we can look for Earth-size planets in the habitable zones around other stars like the Sun.”
This image zooms into a small portion of Kepler's full field of view, showing hundreds of stars in the constellation Lyra. Brighter stars appear white, and fainter stars, red. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Over the next three and a half years Kepler will stare at this great expanse of sky, looking for periodic dips in starlight that result from a planet passing in front of their parent stars. While the ultimate goal is to detect small rocky planets in habitable zones around their suns, like the Earth, Kepler is also expected to add to the inventory of known large gaseous planets.
“Everything about Kepler has been optimized to find Earth-size
The next few weeks will be spent calibrating Kepler’s instruments, then the hunt for new Earths will be on. Exciting times lie ahead for the world of exoplanet research.
More images can be found on the Kepler website here.