NASA’s Kepler Mission Celebrates One Year in Space
See video from 1st year anniversary party.
One year ago this week, NASA’s Kepler Mission soared into the dark night sky, leaving a bright glow in its wake as it began its search for other worlds like Earth.
“It was a stunning launch,” recalled former Kepler Project Manager James Fanson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Following Kepler’s spectacular nocturnal launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket at 10:49 p.m. EST on Friday, March 6, 2009, science team members whooped with joy.
“Now the fun begins,” quipped an ecstatic William Borucki, Kepler’s science principal investigator of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
Since the search began, NASA’s plucky exoplanet hunter has achieved significant success in its quest to answer the timeless question: “Are we alone in our galaxy?”
“Kepler is by far the best planet finder ever invented,” Borucki declared. “It’s very satisfying to see the mission launched and operating so superbly.”
So well, in fact, that last August, data from Kepler were used to detect the atmosphere of HAT-P-7b, a known giant gas planet located about 1,000 light years from Earth. The detection was based on a relatively short 10 days of test data collected before the official start of science operations.
“The occultation, that is the secondary transit seen in the data, also aptly demonstrated the mission’s extraordinary scientific capabilities to detect planets as small as the Earth,” said David Koch, Kepler’s deputy principal investigator.
And that was just the beginning.
Two months ago today, Kepler scientists jubilantly announced the discovery of five exoplanets (planets located beyond our solar system) named Kepler 4b, 5b, 6b, 7b and 8b.
The announcement was made during a jam-packed news conference held Jan. 4, 2010 at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington. The discoveries are based on the first six weeks of data collected since science operations began on May 12, 2009.
The mission’s accomplishments have not gone unnoticed.
“As an astronomer, I’m particularly proud of the Kepler science team who have all worked very hard to make this exciting discovery possible,” said NASA Ames Research Center Director S. Pete Worden at the news conference in January. “I really want to express my thanks to all the members of the Kepler science team and everyone else who supported this mission for their dedication and long hours. This is a really cool mission and truly is what NASA is all about.”
Borucki credits Kepler’s accomplishments to the tireless efforts of the Kepler team consisting of NASA, industry and more than 30 scientists from 20 institutions.
“We have a wonderful team that works very hard and is dedicated to the mission,” Borucki said. “It’s very gratifying to have the continued support of Ames’ management, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation and especially NASA Headquarters.”
Borucki lauds David Koch for his unflagging dedication and support.
“The Kepler mission could not have gotten off the ground without his support,” Borucki observed. “When we first conceived of the mission, Dave Koch stood up and said ‘Bill, I will help you.’ We couldn’t have done it without him.”
Nowadays, Borucki and other science team members are busy analyzing data from a plethora of planets and predict a bright future for Kepler.
“We expect to confirm the existence of several terrestrial-size planets and I’m looking forward to the coming year,” Borucki said. “It’s going to be exciting.”
“The unique, precise, extended and nearly continuous data set for a large number and variety of stars will be a lasting benefit to our understanding of stars,” added Koch, noting that these data are already being used by scientists around the world to determine the mass, size and ages of thousands of stars.
The Kepler Mission is designed to observe more than 150,000 stars continuously and simultaneously for signs of Earth-size planets until at least November 2012. Some of the planets are expected to orbit in a star’s “habitable zone,” a warm region where liquid water could pool on the surface.
Kepler’s science instrument, a photometer containing the largest camera ever flown in space, searches for signatures of planets by measuring dips in the brightness of stars. When planets cross in front of, or transit, their stars, they periodically block the starlight as seen from Earth. The size of the planet can be derived from the tiny change in brightness, and the planet’s temperature can be estimated from the planet’s orbital period and the luminosity of the star.
Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery mission. NASA Ames manages all operations of the mission and is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., managed the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system. Ball Aerospace and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder, support mission operations. The final data archive is located at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md.
“We have a very dedicated team executing the mission,” said Roger Hunter, Kepler Project Manager at NASA Ames. “There is no doubt we’ll meet Kepler’s mission requirements. Kepler’s first year in space has been thrilling, and the best is yet to come.”
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
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