Kepler Set for March 5 Launch on Planet Finding Mission

The Kepler spacecraft has been lifted into place and attached to the Delta II rocket that will launch it into space. The work is on schedule to launch the observatory on March 5 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Florida's Atlantic coast.

It is the first mission with the ability to find planets like Earth -- rocky planets that orbit sun-like stars in a warm zone where liquid water could be maintained on the surface. Liquid water is believed to be essential for the formation of life.

"Kepler is a critical component in NASA's broader efforts to ultimately find and study planets where Earth-like conditions may be present," said Jon Morse, the Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The planetary census Kepler takes will be very important for understanding the frequency of Earth-size planets in our galaxy and planning future missions that directly detect and characterize such worlds around nearby stars."

› Multimedia for Feb. 19 Press conference
› Launch Processing Images

The Kepler spacecraft will watch a patch of space for 3.5 years or more for signs of Earth-sized planets moving around stars similar to the sun. The patch that Kepler will watch contains about 100,000 stars like the sun. Using special detectors similar to those used in digital cameras, Kepler will look for slight dimming in the stars as planets pass between the star and Kepler. The Kepler's place in space will allow it to watch the same stars constantly throughout its mission, something observatories like Hubble cannot do.

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