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Friday, March 06, 2009

The KEPLER spacecraft is launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 6, 2009.
NASA / Jack Pfaller

Off To Find E.T.’s Home... Around 7:30 PM, Pacific Time tonight, a Delta II rocket carrying NASA’s Kepler spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. After successfully separating from its third stage motor more than an hour later, Kepler is set to begin a revolutionary 3.5 to 6-year mission that involves searching for Earth-like planets at other solar systems in our galaxy. Kepler will continuously be surveying 100,000 or so stars in a patch of sky near the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. This is in the hopes that the orbiting telescope will find hundreds of new planets—whether they’re the size of Jupiter or our own world—to add to the list of 300-plus ‘exoplanets’ that were discovered beyond our solar system since the mid 1990’s.

A computer-generated image of the Kepler telescope in space.
NASA

From a personal standpoint, a major reason why I’m excited about the Kepler mission is the fact that, like Dawn, Phoenix, Kaguya and Deep Impact before it, my name is onboard the spacecraft. From May to November of last year, the public had the opportunity to submit their names via the Web so that they would be included on a DVD that was attached to Kepler (below). Last I checked, ‘only’ 58,000 names were submitted for inclusion on the spacecraft when the Name In Space campaign on the Kepler website ended after last Thanksgiving. But these 58,000 names will be part of a project that, in around 3.5 years, will hopefully revolutionize astronomy...and even more importantly, our view of ourselves and the question of whether or not we’re alone in the universe.

A Ball Aerospace technician prepares to attach the 'Name In Space' DVD onto the Kepler spacecraft.
Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.

By December of 2012, scientists should be announcing their final results after Kepler completes its primary mission. We’ll either find out that there are other Earths orbiting stars 600 to 3,000 light years from us, or if we’re truly, completely, alone in the cosmos. Here’s hoping it’s the former. Us humans are the best that Mother Nature can conjure up? Haha... I know, that sounded weird.
My 'Name In Space' certificate.

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