Wednesday, September 16, 2009

NASA's first mission capable of finding Earth-size and smaller planets around other stars

The centuries-old quest for other worlds like our Earth has been rejuvenated by the intense excitement and popular interest surrounding the discovery of hundreds of planets orbiting other stars. There is now clear evidence for substantial numbers of three types of exoplanets; gas giants, hot-super-Earths in short period orbits, and ice giants. The challenge now is to find terrestrial planets (i.e., those one half to twice the size of the Earth), especially those in the habitable zone→ of their stars where liquid water might exist on the surface of the planet.

The Kepler Mission, NASA Discovery mission #10, is specifically designed to survey our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover hundreds of Earth-size and smaller planets in or near the habitable zone→ and determine the fraction of the hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy that might have such planets.

The Transit Method of Detecting Extrasolar Planets

When a planet passes in front of a star as viewed from Earth, the event is called a “transit”. On Earth, we can observe an occasional Venus or Mercury transit. These events are seen as a small black dot creeping across the Sun—Venus or Mercury blocks sunlight as the planet moves between the Sun and us. Kepler finds planets by looking for tiny dips in the brightness of a star when a planet crosses in front of it—we say the planet transits the star.

Once detected, the planet's orbital size can be calculated from the period (how long it takes the planet to orbit once around the star) and the mass of the star using Kepler's Third Law of planetary motion. The size of the planet is found from the depth of the transit (how much the brightness of the star drops) and the size of the star. From the orbital size and the temperature of the star, the planet's characteristic temperature can be calculated. From this the question of whether or not the planet is habitable (not necessarily inhabited) can be answered.

Kepler instrument

The Kepler instrument is a specially designed 0.95-meter diameter telescope called a photometer or light meter. It has a very large field of view for an astronomical telescope — 105 square degrees, which is comparable to the area of your hand held at arm's length. It needs that large a field in order to observe the necessary large number of stars. It stares at the same star field for the entire mission and continuously and simultaneously monitors the brightnesses of more than 100,000 stars for the life of the mission—3.5 or more years.

The photometer must be spacebased to obtain the photometric precision needed to reliably see an Earth-like transit and to avoid interruptions caused by day-night cycles, seasonal cycles and atmospheric perturbations, such as, extinction associated with ground-based observing.

Results from the Kepler mission will allow us to place our solar system within the context of planetary systems in the Galaxy.

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