NASA to search galaxy for 'earthlike' planets

February 25, 2008 7:28:14 PM PST
Of all the digital cameras on planet Earth, you have never seen one like this.

David Koch, an astronomer at NASA Ames in Mountain View, has just concluded a series of experiments that will open one pane in a window to the stars. It's a space-based telescope called Kepler. It will focus on a small section of our Milky Way Galaxy, searching for places where life might be.

ABC7 Reporter Wayne Freedman: "You're the man who will discover the first earthlike planet?"
Dr. David Koch: "That's right. That's the whole reason for doing this mission."

They will do it by fixing Kepler's camera on 100,000 stars to monitor their brightness. The best way to explain this would be for you to imagine a lit flashlight as a star. If you watched it long enough and something were to cross in front of it, the light would dim.

"We're measuring the brightness of 100,000 stars for 30 minutes for four years and never blinking. If you do miss, you miss transit.

The camera aboard Kepler must be sensitive enough to detect a change of brightness of 1/100 of a percent. Imagine being able to detect this kind of event from light years away. By timing the orbits, Dr. Koch can determine a planet's distance and temperature.

"The habitable zone is an area around the star where you find liquid on the planet," says Koch.

Kepler will launch at about this time, next year, and orbit the sun on a route following Earth. For Dr. Koch, 25 years of work is hanging in the balance.