August 7, 2009
NASA’s planet-hunting space telescope has proved that it’s capable of finding other Earth-like planets in our galaxy, if they’re out there.

NASA reported on Thursday that its new exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope passed its first big test. The spacecraft, which is carrying a telescope and a series of computers, showed off its scientific capabilities by successfully detecting the atmosphere of a known giant gas planet.

The discovery proves the telescope’s ability to take highly precise measurements, which will be critical to finding other Earthlike planets.

“As NASA’s first exoplanets mission, Kepler has made a dramatic entrance on the planet-hunting scene,” said Jon Morse, director of the Science Mission Directorate’s Astrophysics Division at NASA, in a statement. “Detecting this planet’s atmosphere in just the first 10 days of data is only a taste of things to come. The planet hunt is on!”

Kepler is set to spend the next three-and-a-half years searching for planets as small as Earth. Scientists are hoping it might even find Earth-like planets orbiting in the warm zone where there could be water, one of the key elements of life. Along a similar vein, NASA scientists have been using rovers, a lander and orbiters to search for evidence of water on Mars.

The atmospheric information that Kepler sent back is from a planet called HAT-P-7, which is about 1,000 light years from Earth. HAT-P-7 is 26 times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun, which, according to NASA, makes the planet as “hot as the glowing red heating element on a stove.”

Kepler was launched early this past March from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

It’s designed to study between 100,000 and 170,000 sunlike stars and find Earth-like planets that may orbit them. James Fanson, the Kepler program manager, said in a previous interview that the telescope onboard the spacecraft will measure the brightness of those stars every half hour, allowing scientists to detect any dimming in their brightness caused by orbiting planets passing in front of them.

Based on the dimming of a star’s light, Fanson said scientists should be able to calculate the size of an orbiting planet and whether it has a solid surface and the potential for liquid water.

“It has a telescope, but it’s not generating pretty pictures,” said Fanson. “What we’ll bring down are pixels around target stars, marking the brightness of each of these 170,000 stars.”
NASA: Hunt for Earth-like planets is on