May 15 2009

Astronomy updates

Published by at 10:36 pm under Astronomy

It has been another good week for astronomy, in particular for space-based astronomy.

The Hubble Space Telescope repair mission has been the biggest of such news items, and at the moment seems to be going well. This week (yesterday, in fact) saw the successful Ariane launch of two European space observatories, the Planck observatory to investigate irregularities in the cosmic microwave background, and the Herschel telescope, which is essentially a souped-up Hubble (it’s mirror is 1.5 times bigger than Hubble’s). All will add significantly to our knowledge of the universe as a whole and the various planets and stars in it.

But it gets better. This week another space-based telescope, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, began its formal mission to, as Star Trek puts it, seek out new worlds. It is specifically intended to look for Earth-like (terraform, if not terraformed) planets around other stars. Over the next three-and-a-half years it will examine over 100,000 stars. The observatory itself was launched in March and its telescope saw “first light” in April. Between then and now it has been going through testing and calibration. This past Tuesday (5/12/09) it was pronounced ready for its primary mission. Kepler is designed to look for planets as small as Earth orbiting their stars in the habitable zone (where temperatures could let surface water remain liquid on at least part of the planet). I’m eagerly awaiting results, the first of which will be transmitted from the satellite in mid-June.

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