Pasadena, California: NASA's Kepler mission has sent back its first images of a patch of sky where it will soon begin hunting for Earth-like planets. The images show the mission's target patch of sky, a vast starry field in the Cygnus-Lyra region of our Milky Way galaxy.
The image displayed here zooms in on portions of the larger region. The images can be seen online.
NASA officials described the first shots as ''awe inspiring,'' and ''breathtaking''
This image zooms into a small portion of what Kepler can see. The area pictured is 0.2 percent of the spacecraft's full field of view, and shows hundreds of stars in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
"Kepler's first glimpse of the sky is awe-inspiring," said Lia LaPiana, Kepler's programme executive at NASA headquarters in Washington. "To be able to see millions of stars in a single snapshot is simply breathtaking."
One new image from Kepler shows its entire field of view -- a 100-square-degree portion of the sky. The regions contain an estimated 14 million stars, more than 100,000 of which have been selected as ideal candidates for planet hunting.
"It's thrilling to see this treasure trove of stars," said William Borucki, science principal investigator for Kepler at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. "We expect to find hundreds of planets circling those stars, and for the first time, we can look for Earth-size planets in the habitable zones around other stars like the sun."
Kepler will spend the next three-and-a-half years searching more than 100,000 pre-selected stars for signs of planets. NASA said it expects the mission to find a variety of worlds - from large, gaseous ones, to rocky ones as small as Earth.
The mission is the first designed specifically to find planets like ours -- small, rocky planets orbiting sun-like stars in the habitable zone, where temperatures are right for possible lakes and oceans of water.
To find the planets, Kepler will stare at one large expanse of sky for the duration of its lifetime, looking for periodic dips in starlight that occur as planets circle in front of their stars and partially block the light.
Kepler carries a 95-megapixel camera, which is the largest ever launched into space. It can detect tiny changes in a star's brightness of only 20 parts per million.
"Everything about Kepler has been optimized to find Earth-size planets," said James Fanson, Kepler's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Our images are road maps that will allow us, in a few years, to point to a star and say a world like ours is there."
Scientists and engineers will spend the next few weeks calibrating Kepler's science instrument, the photometer, and adjusting the telescope's alignment to achieve the best focus. Once these steps are complete, the planet hunt will begin.
"We've spent years designing this mission, so actually being able to see through its eyes is tremendously exciting," said Eric Bachtell, the lead Kepler systems engineer at Ball Aerospace & Technology Corp.
Bachtell has been working on the design, development and testing of Kepler for nine years.
Kepler is a NASA Discovery mission. Ames is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. JPL manages the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is responsible for developing the Kepler flight system and supporting mission operations.