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Nasa launches planet hunter.

3/7/2009 4:03:55 AM

Nasa has launched a telescope into space to look for Earth-like planets around other stars and determine whether there are places that could support human-like life beyond our solar system.

The Kepler telescope, named after the German 17th-century astrophysicist, was sent into space on Friday on a rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

It will spend three and a half years searching roughly 100,000 stars, measuring their brightness and looking for signs that might signify orbiting planets.

"This is a historical mission," Ed Weiler, Nasa's space science chief, said on Thursday.

"It really attacks some basic human questions that have been asked since that first man or woman looked up in the sky and asked, 'Are we alone?'"

Once in orbit, Kepler will be pointed at a part of the sky between the constellations Cygnus and Lyra in the Milky Way galaxy.

Light-collecting devices in the telescope will detect slight changes in the number of photons emanating from more than 100,000 target stars.

Some changes will be due to planets passing in front of stars and temporarily blocking light.

'Small nuggets'

Dr Robert Massey, policy officer with the Royal Astronomical Society in the UK, told Al Jazeera that the telescope is unlikely to find life itself, but rather places where life could possibly exist.

"There are an awful lot of stars out there [and] we know for sure that very many of them have planets, its just the ones we've detected so far have been rather large," he said.

"What we're looking for now are those small nuggets, those small islands in space where life [could] exist."

Jim Fanson, a project manager at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said: "It's akin to measuring a flea as it creeps across the headlight of an automobile at night."

Scientists already have found more than 340 planets circling stars beyond our solar system.

Kepler is designed to focus on smaller, rocky, Earth-like planets. 2003 - 2009

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Date:Mar 7, 2009
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