A little more than a month ago, NASA launched the Kepler space telescope which is specifically designed to survey our neighborhood looking for Earth-size and smaller planets in or near the habitable zone of their stars. Since the launch, the spacecraft has been slowly drifting away from the Earth and is now trailing us by more 3,000,000 km on its sun-centric orbit. At 12:13 p.m. UT on April 7, mission operators sent the commands to jetisson the telescope’s dust cover. Engineers at Kepler’s mission operations center at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, in Boulder, Colorado, will now use the incident startlight to calibrate the instrument and the “real” data collection will commence in a few weeks time. Meanwhile, NASA has released the first series of the star fields captured by the mission’s 95 megapixels camera (largest ever sent into space).
The star-rich region of sky between the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra stretching across 100 square degrees will be monitored constantly for three-and-half-year years (with the exception of downlink times). Scientist will analyze the data looking for periodic dips in brightness which occur when a planet crosses in front of their stars from Kepler’s point of view. The instruments aboard the spacecraft can notice changes in brightness of 0.002% – small enough to detect transits of Earth-sized planets.