The Delta II rocket carrying the Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft lifted off on time at 10:49 pm EST from Launch Complex 17-B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The spectacular nighttime launch followed a smooth countdown free of technical issues or weather concerns.
Kepler is the world’s first mission with the ability to find true Earth-like planets orbiting stars in the “habitable zone”. Kepler will peer closely at a patch of space for at least three-and-a-half years, looking for rocky planets similar to our own. The spacecraft will target an area rich with stars like our Sun, watching for a slight dimming in the starlight as planets slip through the space between.
“Kepler is a critical component in Nasa’s broader efforts to ultimately find and study planets where Earth-like conditions may be present,” said Jon Morse, the Astrophysics Division director at Nasa Headquarters in Washington. “The planetary census Kepler takes will be very important for understanding the frequency of Earth-size planets in our galaxy and planning future missions that directly detect and characterise such worlds around nearby stars.”