NASA's Kepler mission to answer the question of how common Earth-like planets are in the galaxy is set for a March 6 liftoff from Pad 17-B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
There are two launch windows: 10:49 to 10:52 p.m. and 11:13 to 11:16 p.m. EST. The 2,320-pound spacecraft from Ball Aerospace will be lofted by a United Launch Alliance Delta II 7925-10L into an Earth-trailing orbit from which it can view some 100,000 sun-like stars in the Cygnus-Lyra region of the Milky Way.
Putting it a 10th of an astronomical unit - 9 million miles - behind Earth will keep the spacecraft free of the planet's gravitational field and assure that it will have uninterrupted viewing. The total mission cost is $591 million.
Principal Scientist William Borucki of NASA Ames Research Center pushed for a planet survey for decades but had to wait for advances in photometric technology to catch up with his vision.
Planets are virtually invisible next to very bright suns, so detecting them requires an instrument with high sensitivity. Kepler's photometer can detect changes in brightness of just 20 parts per mission, which should make it perfect for spotting the planets as they pass in front of their host stars.
The spacecraft's telescope has a 1.4-meter (4.6-foot) primary mirror with a 0.95-meter aperture and a very wide 105-degree field of view. Its target stars were chosen from 4.3 million suns within its viewing area.
Kepler's imaging system uses 42 charge-coupled devices with a total of 95 million pixels. Hubble's Wide Field & Planetary Camera 2 has 4 CCDs and 640,000 pixels.
See what I mean? Over three orders of magnitude in pixels more! I hope everything works well!