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The Kepler telescope, whose purpose is to look for habitable planets,
The Kepler telescope, whose purpose is to look for habitable planets, is ready to take off, according to a NASA report. The mission was launched from the space center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on March 9.

Mankind is persistently seeking for life in distant worlds. In recent years, leading space agencies have been paying increasing attention to the search for extraterrestrial civilizations. Out of NASA's five key projects, search for life ranks third. And it is not unlikely that data collected by the U.S. telescope will improve the chances of detecting intelligence in space.

The probe has been named after Johann Kepler, a famous German mathematician, astronomer, optician and astrologer who discovered the laws of planetary motion in the 17th century. The telescope will broaden our knowledge of planets circling around remote stars. For three and a half years Kepler will be studying star clusters between the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra.

If life exists there, the planet must not differ a great deal from Earth in surface conditions. Such a planet must be comparable to Earth in size, it must be rocky (not gaseous) and its orbit must be at the "right" distance from the parent star. The planet must be located in the so-called habitable zone: not too near for surface water to boil away nor so far that it freezes.

To date, there are more than 300 such exoplanets known, or planets outside the boundaries of the solar system. But most of them are too different from Earth to maintain even primitive life forms. At the same time, observations show that planets abound in the Universe. They have been detected among 10% of stars included in the search program.

So Kepler will have its hands full. The telescope is equipped with the most up-to-date 95 megapixel camera, making it the most "insightful" of all craft working in orbit. It is this camera that will be looking for Earth-like planets.

In addition to the camera, Kepler is fitted with light-sensitive devices that can detect very slight changes in star brightness. The point is that today's equipment can pinpoint exoplanets only when they pass in front of their stars, dimming their visibility to some extent. If such a giant planet as Jupiter travels near its star, the star's brightness will drop by 1%, and if the planet is Earth-like, the level of brightness will diminish only by 0.0000086%.

Because the differences are so small and difficult to fix, the telescope will be watching the same stars for three years. According to scientists, 170,000 stars are located in the chosen area, and nearly any one of them may, theoretically, support a planetary system like the Sun's.

The French telescope Corot, launched on February 3, has detected the smallest of all known exoplanets: Exo-7b. It has a diameter 1.7 times that of the Earth, but rotates too close to its star and has a surface temperature of 1,000 degrees C.

If Earth-like planets are found to exist everywhere, the next phase will start with scientists looking for traces of oxygen and water vapor in their atmospheres. This is the aim of the next NASA project, which will make regular spectral analysis of the atmospheres of Earth-type exoplanets.

Its future will depend on what Kepler will have found. If Earth-type planets are few and far between in the Universe, there will in fact be nothing to look for. Whether we are able to spot life in space or not depends on Kepler.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.


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