Kepler Mission EPO

January 10, 2007

Press Release posted Dec. 21, 2001

SETI Institute Partners with NASA Ames Research Center on Kepler Mission

keplerThe SETI Institute is a partner for the NASA Discovery Mission, Kepler that will seek evidence for Earth-sized planets in orbit about sun-like stars.

This partnership represents the excellent fit between the Institute's and NASA's missions, both of which seek to make discoveries of life beyond Earth.

SETI Institute scientist, Jon Jenkins (of the Center for the Study of Life in the Universe) is a Co-investigator for the mission's signal processing work, while Dr. Jill Tarter, serves on the Science Working Group.

The Education and Public Outreach program will be led by SETI Institute Director of Education, Edna DeVore, working in partnership with the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Once again NASA Ames will rely upon the SETI Institute to broaden the impact of its scientific mission through education and programs. Kepler joins SOFIA (a partnership between the SETI Institute, NASA Ames and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific) as the second significant such partnership between NASA and the SETI Institute.

The following NASA press release details the Kepler Mission.


NASA has selected the Kepler Mission, a project based at Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., as one of the next two new NASA Discovery missions.

Scheduled for launch in 2008, the Kepler Mission will use a unique spaceborne telescope specifically designed to search for Earth-like planets around stars beyond our solar system.

"The Kepler Mission will, for the first time, enable humans to search our galaxy for Earth-size or even smaller planets," said principal investigator William Borucki of Ames. "With this cutting-edge capability, Kepler may help us answer one of the most enduring questions humans have asked throughout history: are there others like us in the universe?"

To date, about 80 extra-solar planets have been discovered. However, these are all gaseous-giant planets similar to Jupiter, which are probably composed mostly of hydrogen and helium and unlikely to harbor life. None of the planet detection methods used so far has the capability of finding Earth-size planets - those that are 30 to 600 times less massive than Jupiter. None of the giants discovered to date has liquid water or even a solid surface.

The Kepler Mission is different from previous ways of looking for planets; it will look for the 'transit' signature of planets. A transit occurs each time a planet crosses the line-of-sight between the planet's parent star that it is orbiting and the observer. When this happens, the planet blocks some of the light from its star, resulting in a periodic dimming. This periodic signature is used to detect the planet and to determine its size and its orbit.

Three transits of a star, all with a consistent period, brightness change and duration, provide a robust method of detection and planet confirmation. The measured orbit of the planet and the known properties of the parent star are used to determine if each planet discovered is in the habitable zone, that is, at the distance from its star where liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet.

The Kepler Mission will hunt for planets using a specialized one-meter diameter telescope called a photometer to measure the small changes in brightness caused by the transits.

Photometer mounted
Photometer mounted
Click for larger Image

The key technology at the heart of the photometer is a set of charged coupled devices (CCDs) that measures the brightness of hundreds of thousands of stars at the same time. CCDs are the silicon light-sensitive chips that are used in today's TV cameras, camcorders and digital cameras. Kepler must monitor many thousands of stars simultaneously, since the chance of any one planet being aligned along the line-of-sight is only about 1/2 of a percent.

"From monitoring 100,000 stars similar to our sun for four years, the Kepler team expects to find many hundreds of terrestrial-type planets," said David Koch of NASA Ames, the mission's deputy principal investigator.

"With this cutting-edge capability, Kepler may help us answer one of the most enduring questions humans have asked throughout history: are there others like us in the universe?"

William Borucki

The Kepler Mission will continuously view an amount of sky about equal to the size of a human hand held at arm's length or about equal in area to two 'scoops' of the sky made with the Big Dipper constellation. In comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope can view only the amount of sky equal to a grain of sand held at arms length, and then only for about a half-hour at a time.

"One of Ames' most important efforts is our work in the field of astrobiology - the study of life in the universe. Kepler's goal of finding planets that might harbor life represents a major step in advancing astrobiology research," said Dr. Harry McDonald, Ames' Center Director.

"The Kepler mission represents a cornerstone in our effort to search for evidence of life in the universe, and will pave the way for future more complex space projects. I am very proud of the years of work invested by the Kepler team leading to this selection," said Scott Hubbard, Ames' Deputy Director for Research.

The industrial partner for development of the hardware is Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo.

Kepler's selection involves a delayed start of development of up to one year due to funding constraints in the Discovery program.

NASA selected the two missions from 26 proposals made in early 2001. The missions must stay within the Discovery Program's development cost cap of about $299 million.

The Discovery Program emphasizes lower-cost, highly focused scientific missions. The past Discovery missions are NEAR Shoemaker, Mars Pathfinder and Lunar Prospector, all of which successfully completed their missions. Stardust and Genesis are in space; both have begun collecting science data, although Stardust has not yet arrived at its target comet. CONTOUR is scheduled to launch next summer, Deep Impact in January 2004 and MESSENGER in March 2004. ASPERA-3 and NetLander are Discovery Missions-of-Opportunity that are under development.

Kathleen Burton Dec. 21, 2001 - NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. - Phone: 650/604-1731 or 650/604-9000 - - RELEASE: 01-107AR

Visit the Official NASA Kepler Mission Website