In the early hours of Saturday morning (UK time) NASA successfully launched the Kepler spacecraft into orbit. It was pretty late here but no matter how tired I got staying up I knew watching a live launch, and the tension laced build-up, is always worth it.
Kepler is going to search for Earth sized worlds by constantly studying a patch of sky in the constellation of Cygnus. Over about three and a half years it will watch about 100,000 stars in this patch to see if any of them show a little dip in brightness, caused by a planet moving in front of the star (known as a transit). The Kepler team expect to find around 50 Earth sized worlds during the course of the mission, so it promises to present some fascinating results when the data starts flowing down.
For me, space lift-offs and landings are especially enjoyable nowadays because the Internet allows those of us, around the world, who love this sort of thing to share in the excitement of the moment, through things like Twitter. Those of you who remember the night Phoenix landed on Mars will perhaps know what I mean, when we even got on the spot expert commentary courtesy of Mars Live.
On Saturday morning, within a few moments of the Delta II rocket’s launch, pictures popped up on Twitpic of Kepler rising into the sky, whilst people near the launch site were ‘tweeting’ their feedback (and even videos!).
For the most part I sat back and watched the NASA TV feed alongside the stream of comments and updates from the Twitter space community, who were closer (sometimes literally) to the Kepler mission than me; be they NASA press officers, scientists, hardened spaceflight enthusiasts, amateur astronomers or other interested folk. Even though some people belittle Twitter I think it’s fantastic to see it bringing a group of people together like this — getting everyone talking — sharing both enthusiasm and information. I frequently find myself learning something from it and that can only be a good thing.
Looking forward to this coming week, the Space Shuttle Discovery will launch on 11th March. It’s another night launch from the Kennedy Space Center and no doubt NASA will be showing it live on NASA TV. So although it’ll mean another late night here in the UK, I know where I’ll be.