With the disastrous failure of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory just two weeks behind it, NASA plans to tee up twice in one week with the March 6 launch of the Kepler spacecraft followed by the March 11 Discovery space shuttle mission to the International Space Station. The OCO on Feb. 24 failed to separate from its launch rocket or reach orbit, and tumbled into the Pacific Ocean near Antarctica.
The unmanned Kepler project is a three-year or longer mission in search of Earth-sized planets moving around stars similar to the sun. The Kepler spacecraft will watch a patch of space containing about 100,000 such stars. Unlike other space observatories such as the Hubble Space Telescope, Kepler's space position will allow it to watch the same stars constantly throughout its mission.
Provisioned with special detectors similar to those used in digital cameras, Kepler will look for slight dimming in the stars as planets pass between the stars and Kepler.
"We will monitor a wide range of stars, from small cool ones-where planets must circle closely to stay warm-to stars bigger and hotter than the sun, where planets must stay well clear to avoid being roasted," William Borucki, principal investigator for the mission, said in a March 6 statement. "Everything about the mission is optimized to find Earth-size planets with the potential for life, to help us answer the question: Are Earths bountiful or is our planet unique?"
According to NASA, Kepler will be carrying the largest camera ever launched into space, a 95-megapixel array of charge-coupled devices much like those found in everyday digital cameras. From its view above Earth, the Kepler telescope is powerful enough to detect one person in a small town turning off a porch light at night.
As the Kepler mission prepared for launch on a Delta II rocket, NASA announced it was an all systems go for a March 11 launch of the Discovery space shuttle. The eight-man Discovery crew will deliver the ISS' fourth and final set of solar array wings, completing the station's truss, or backbone. The arrays will provide the electricity to fully power science experiments and support the crew of six the station will host beginning in May.
Four spacewalks are scheduled for the 14-day mission as the ISS crew install the solar array wings. The mission also includes replacing a failed unit for a system that converts urine to potable water.