NASA has successfully launched its Kepler mission.
"This mission attempts to answer a question that is as old as time itself," Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said. "Are other planets like ours out there? It's not just a science question -- it's a basic human question."
Engineers received signals from the spacecraft at 12:11 a.m. Saturday, and confirmed that Kepler separated from its United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket to enter its last sun-center orbit, about 950 miles behind Earth. The Kepler launched at 10:49 p.m., EST, Friday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The craft is generating its own power through solar panels and will search for Earth-sized planets orbiting stars at distances that could allow water to pool on the planets' surfaces. It could take three years to find such planets, but such discoveries could point to possible locations of life beyond Earth.
Kepler Project Manager James Fanson, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., called the launch "stunning" and said its mission will be very meaningful to the human race.
"Kepler will help us understand if our Earth is unique or if others like it are out there," he said in a statement.
William Borucki, principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., said that even if Kepler doesn't find planets like Earth, its mission will have great significance.
"It would indicate that we are probably alone in the galaxy," he said.
For the next 60 days, engineers will make sure Kepler works properly, command it to eject a dust cover, and calibrate its high-powered camera before searching for habitable planets. First it will search "hot Jupiters," or large gas-filled planets that circle quickly and closely around starts.
The Hubble and Spitzer telescopes will also view the planets and their atmospheres. After that, Kepler will likely view planets the size of Neptune before moving on to rocky planets the size of Earth.
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