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Kepler mission to hunt for planets just our size

The US will launch the Kepler spacecraft Friday to look for other Earths.

This artist rendition provided by NASA shows the Kepler space telescope. Kepler is designed to search for Earth-like planets in the Milky Way galaxy.


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The United States is scheduled to launch on Friday an orbiting telescope designed to help answer one of the oldest and deepest questions of astronomy: Are we – or at least our planet’s microbes – alone in the galaxy?

The Kepler spacecraft will stare at a patch of sky – the same 100,000 stars near the northern constellation Cygnus, all at once – for at least 3-1/2 years. The goal is to detect Earth-like planets orbiting their host stars at distances thought to be sweet spots for life.

Dubbed habitable zones, these are orbits where a planet is bathed in light that is strong enough to permit liquid water to collect and remain a persistent feature of the planet’s surface.

If all goes well, Kepler’s journey will start with the launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida at around 10:49 p.m. Eastern time.

For planet-hunting astronomers, the $591 million Kepler mission promises to cross what they’ve dubbed the “Great Divide” that separates the decidedly uninhabitable planets they have found so far with the Earth-like ones they seek.

During the past 15 years, ground-based telescopes have detected more than 300 so-called exoplanets – planets that are beyond our solar system. But these discoveries have involved a bizarre menagerie of objects ranging in size from 10 times Jupiter’s mass to nearly Earth-scale planets.


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