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Part of Kepler's CCD array  (Source: NASA)
Kepler spacecraft will detect small planets close to the size of earth.

Humanity has wondered about the heavens above since before recorded history. Recently, the discovery of hundred of planets in other star systems has sparked extraordinary interest in determining the odds of extraterrestrial life.

The Kepler mission will seek to explain one part of the puzzle by observing the brightness of over 100,000 stars over the next forty-two months. In doing so, it will be able to track  earth-sized planets, generating future targets of interest for more advanced future space observatories like the Terrestrial Planet Finder and the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna.

Nearly all of the extrasolar planets detected thus far are giant planets the size of Jupiter or larger. Kepler will look for planets 30 to 600 times less massive, closer to the size of Earth and more likely to support life.

All planets in stable orbits transit across their star during their own unique annual cycle. This causes a dip in the star's apparent magnitude for an observer in the same plane. By timing these transits, the orbit and length of year can be calculated. The orbit of a planet can be used to determine if it lies within the "zone of life", where it is close enough to the sun to support liquid water, yet far enough that potential life is not destroyed by it.

"Kepler's mission is to determine whether Earth-size planets in the habitable zone of other stars are frequent or rare; whether life in our Milky Way galaxy is likely to be frequent or rare", said William Borucki, NASA's Principal Investigator on the Kepler Mission.

While Kepler will only focus on a small area of the sky, its results will be enough to enable accurate estimates of the number of earth-sized planets in our galaxy.

Kepler will use an array of 42 CCD (charge-coupled device) cameras, each measuring 50x25 mm. With a resolution of 1024x2200 each, Kepler has a total resolution of approximately 95 megapixels.
 
CCD cameras are used in most digital cameras and optical scanners. They are also used in astronomy and in night-vision devices due to their sensitivity to the ultraviolet and infrared ranges of light.

Mission operations will be conducted by NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, and are included as part of the $600 million total mission cost. Ames will contact the Kepler spacecraft twice a week using the X-band for command updates as well as system status updates. Scientific data is only downloaded once a month using the Ka-band, at a data rate of up to 4.33 Mb/s. To conserve bandwidth, Kepler will conduct partial analysis on board and only transmit data of interest to researchers.

The Kepler spacecraft will be launched at 2250 Eastern Standard Time from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It will use the Delta II multi-stage rocket, which has flown 140 missions while achieving a success rate of almost 99 percent.
 
Instead of a typical earth orbit, it will launch Kepler into an earth trailing orbit in order to block light from the sun and the moon. This orbit also avoids gravitational perturbations inherent in an Earth orbit, thus allowing for additional platform stability.

The Kepler Mission is named for Johannes Kepler, best known for his Laws of Planetary Motion.

Updated 3/8/2009

The Kepler spacecraft was launched successfully aboard a Delta II rocket in the D2925-10L launch configuration from pad 17B at 22:49:57 EST on Friday March 6th. The three-stage launch vehicle had nine additional solid rocket boosters, six for the first stage and three for the second stage. The third stage boosted  the Kepler payload to its heliocentric orbit trailing Earth. Two months of testing and systems verification will occur for the next two months before Kepler begins its inspiring mission.

 



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What if Kepler Finds Earth like Planets!
By SeniorMoment on 3/6/2009 12:36:50 PM , Rating: 2
When observers eventually find an earth like planet the public dynamics to follow should be very interesting. Even though colonization would be a multi-generational undertaking, I would not be surprised to see both scientific and religious leaders push for first deeper exploration and then multi-generational colony ships.

For scientists the job and funding motivation is clear in addition to just fundamental curiosity, but for religious leaders such exploration may seem like a divine mandate--a way to spread the Bible, the Koran, or other religious doctrine beyond an Earth that will eventually no longer be able to support human life. The actual discovery of other life at our level of development or beyond may also of course pose religious challenges to what most Americans believe today.

In any case the finding of other life on planets similar to earth is certain to spark an interesting period in history.




RE: What if Kepler Finds Earth like Planets!
By Farfignewton on 3/8/2009 6:00:52 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Even though colonization would be a multi-generational undertaking, I would not be surprised to see both scientific and religious leaders push for first deeper exploration and then multi-generational colony ships.


I think the idea of multi-generational colony ships is unlikely to ever move beyond an idea. Let's say we had a ship today that could get us to a newly discovered habitable planet around Proxima Centauri (or wherever) in 150 years. How many hundreds or thousands of people would we have to commit (without their input, let alone their authorization since they haven't been born yet) to life spent entirely on a space bath tub? I don't think that ship would be allowed to undertake such a mission without some type of dire, survival of the human race at stake right now type of scenario.


RE: What if Kepler Finds Earth like Planets!
By Reclaimer77 on 3/8/2009 6:45:21 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
When observers eventually find an earth like planet the public dynamics to follow should be very interesting. Even though colonization would be a multi-generational undertaking, I would not be surprised to see both scientific and religious leaders push for first deeper exploration and then multi-generational colony ships.


Is this a joke ?

Colonizing the Moon at this point would be a "multi-generational" undertaking. Hell we can barely get a rocket into orbit without it failing these days. And you're talking about colonizing something light YEARS away ?

Pure science fiction.


RE: What if Kepler Finds Earth like Planets!
By Diesel Donkey on 3/8/2009 11:47:28 PM , Rating: 2
I don't think the OP was suggesting that it will take multiple generations worth of time to achieve this goal, I think he/she was suggesting that if a ship were to be built that could get to a planet that could support life within a couple hundred years or something, then that ship would have to take a group of people that would give birth to a new generation while on the ship and then die, and then that new generation would repeat the process and so on until the planet is reached.

Perhaps I misunderstood your response, but your comment about getting to the moon (the transit time for which is obviously less than one lifetime) led me to believe that your misunderstood the OP.


RE: What if Kepler Finds Earth like Planets!
By jaysan on 3/12/2009 5:04:12 AM , Rating: 2
I think he meant that it's so difficult just building moonrockets these days, that building a ship capable of carrying us safely to a distant star seems too farfetched.

Anyway, this multi-generational thing would never work. It's too inhumane to attempt it, except in a crisis situation where there Earth is falling apart. Society would either break down or become deformed living cooped up like that. Just better to travel with everybody in cryogenic suspension. If nobody's awake, then nobody can suffer or cause problems.

Even better would be to discover new physics that might help us make the journey quickly. Could we harness the Higgs boson?


By Diesel Donkey on 3/12/2009 12:17:21 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Society would either break down or become deformed living cooped up like that.

Have you seen Wall-E by any chance?

quote:
Could we harness the Higgs boson?

Only with a VERY small harness :)


RE: What if Kepler Finds Earth like Planets!
By JonB on 3/8/2009 11:22:48 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
How many hundreds or thousands of people would we have to commit..


Are you suggesting that we couldn't find enough volunteers to fill such a ship? Admittedly, our current technology couldn't build it to travel so long and far, but when the time comes, there will be many adventurous people from around the world willing to commit themselves and their future children/crewmembers.


RE: What if Kepler Finds Earth like Planets!
By boogle on 3/9/2009 6:00:53 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
Are you suggesting that we couldn't find enough volunteers to fill such a ship?


He means that the children of the volunteers would have to commit to the mission despite having no input. Whose to say every person born on that ship will want to be on the ship - let alone colonise a planet we know nothing about other than it existing and possibly supporting life?

As he originally said, it would probably only ever happen if Earth itself was under serious threat from an extinction level event.


RE: What if Kepler Finds Earth like Planets!
By MRwizard on 3/9/2009 7:39:40 AM , Rating: 2
point of view 1:Hold on, who says they'll want to leave the space ship. i mean that is their home now, not earth or the new planet.

Point of view 2: we could just use psychology to trick 'em all into wanting to go to the new planet. hehe

Point of view 3: why the hell WOULDN'T we go colinize another planet in this way. at the moment it is the only possible way to do it.

point of view 4: In the future, we would have machines do our bidding instead. send a probe to point x in the sky that can deploy a colony pack and us shortly behind to "pollute" our new world. Heck, there might be sanctions on how many people can populate a planet at one single time.

But personaly: i really beleive that our way of colinizing anything in space, will be very much dependant on how quickly we can get there. Our propulsion technology MUST be able to get us to a new planet by getting us there "same day" type effort. only then can we really have people going to a planet to colinize.
If it takes us 2 or more generations to get to a planet, then we are going to have psychological problems.No, not crazy people (OK possibly!) - just people who don't want to be there and we will get people that do want to be there to the point they don't want to leave. i don't see a problem with the latter as they can become part of the ships crew, engineers, mechanics, janitors....

lol, how annoying would that kid be asking "are we there yet?" the whole time?

on my last note, we are nearly able to transport humans through space in greater distances than the moon - another generation or 2 will see people on mars :)


RE: What if Kepler Finds Earth like Planets!
By JonnyDough on 3/9/2009 10:56:36 AM , Rating: 2
Forget propulsion and space ships. We'll need a gateway. Quantum physics have already allowed us to send messages from point A to point B through particle property swapping (without the message traveling in between points). It is only a matter of time before we understand things (physics) in ways we have yet to even imagine. The particle accelerators we've built will aid us in all sorts of things like travel, genetics, creation of materials/refinement, etc.


By MRwizard on 3/10/2009 6:42:23 AM , Rating: 2
thats a heck of good point, i totally gorgot about that, but i wouldn't forget about spaceships completely. you still have to get to the planet in the first place to build point b. very interesting tho since we could just send robots to do a mans job and reap the rewards...


By Farfignewton on 3/9/2009 12:07:26 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
point of view 1:Hold on, who says they'll want to leave the space ship. i mean that is their home now, not earth or the new planet.


I'd say human nature pretty much guarantees some (maybe even most) of those people are going to be pretty pissed about being stuck on a spaceship their entire life as opposed to living on a perfectly good planet. When my father moved our family from central California to play drill instructor for the army, he made central Kansas our "home". Nobody liked it. It caused a hell of a lot of strife even before we left, and it only took two years of my life that I will NEVER get back to leave. ;)

quote:
Point of view 2: we could just use psychology to trick 'em all into wanting to go to the new planet. hehe


Compared to the act of condemning them to life on a spaceship in the first place, I see this as only a very minor ethical problem. :D

quote:
Point of view 3: why the hell WOULDN'T we go colinize another planet in this way. at the moment it is the only possible way to do it.


For a one word answer - Mutiny. I'm sure we all agree that our lives are ours to do with more or less as we please. However, I do not feel that under present circumstances I have any right to commit my descendants to such a venture, nor do I believe that it would be permitted by our current society/government, at least here in the U.S. Maybe I'm wrong.

quote:
But personaly: i really beleive that our way of colinizing anything in space, will be very much dependant on how quickly we can get there. Our propulsion technology MUST be able to get us to a new planet by getting us there "same day" type effort. only then can we really have people going to a planet to colinize.


I largely agree, though I'd say you're being a bit pessimistic. I think there are probably loads of people who would be undaunted by a journey of five years or so.


By Boze on 3/10/2009 12:20:25 PM , Rating: 2
These are some pretty idiotic comments that are certainly influenced by thinking from the past couple of decades.

Essentially what some of you are positing is that an unborn child should have a "choice" over where it is born.

I'm sure there are lots of starving kids in various nations around the world who would like to do that. Oh wait, they can't, because the very notion itself is ridiculous.

And let's think about some of these other comments...

quote:
Whose to say every person born on that ship will want to be on the ship - let alone colonise a planet


So, did the children of the Quakers get to make that argument?

This is the most ridiculous thing I've read here on DailyTech, and that's quite a list to choose from.


By MozeeToby on 3/9/2009 12:49:23 PM , Rating: 2
Well, from what I remember, you need around 100 genetically healthy people to prevent genetic drift (basically, random chance exerting more pressure than survival of the fittest). Probably less if you find people willing to follow a rigid breeding plan (but who is going to submit to that?).

One way around this is to send a crew of all women, along with a few hundred thousand frozen embryos. During the trip, the population is kept to a minimum (say 10 women) and babies are born on a strict schedule to ensure that the ship has enough crew to run but not too many to support.

When the ship lands, the women would be forced to have babies as rapidly as possible (again sticking with 100% female for the first couple generations to get the population up). Later, males are introduced into the scheme of things and the society (hopefully) returns to something like normal. Since the embryos come from a diverse population back on Earth, genetic diversity is assured.

Ethical? Not really. But it is the best bet for getting a human colony going somewhere outside of our solar system. It is possible to take the idea even farther if it is possible to create artificial wombs and software intelligent enough to raise a baby into adulthood. Then you don't even need the crew to get you there.

I'm not saying that we can, would, or should do this. I'm mearly saying that the number of volounteers you need proportional to the genetic diversity you want on your colony. You would need at least 100 volounteers or donated embryos, not thousands (though it would probably be better).

As for not having the future humans's permission to send them on a long and dangerous mission, the same could be said about crossing the Atlantic to the new world. Or could be said about me moving my family to Ethiopia to help the poor. Parents have the right to move their descendants however they see fit, at least historically they have.


By plowak on 3/9/2009 6:38:29 PM , Rating: 2
Were not going to send people, just sperms. But, first we're going to have to find a planet broadcasting p0rn interesting enough for us to generate said sperms to send. Seems obvious to me.


Kepler search for planets blooper
By jimpapadopoulos on 3/6/2009 9:52:27 AM , Rating: 1
It is reported: "All planets in stable orbits transit across their star during their own unique annual cycle. This causes a dip in the star's apparent magnitude for an observer."

That's WAY off the mark, only true for planets whose ecliptic plane includes Earth. Let me take a wild guess that far less than one thousandth of potential planets will actually be viewable by this technique.




RE: Kepler search for planets blooper
By scherzox on 3/6/2009 10:12:21 AM , Rating: 2
I was thinking the same thing. The odds of another planetary system's orbital plane being lined up with earth are very small. They will find some though, but not as many as these articles lead us to believe.


RE: Kepler search for planets blooper
By Hellfire27 on 3/6/2009 10:38:22 AM , Rating: 1
All planetary bodies in orbit around a star have a slight gravitational tug on said star. This causes the star to wobble ever so slightly, thus you would not necessarily need to be in the orbital plane to know that a planet is there. Observing the planet would be very difficult if you are not in the plane though, you would just know that something is there.


RE: Kepler search for planets blooper
By General Disturbance on 3/6/2009 12:02:36 PM , Rating: 5
This mission isn't using radial velocity variations to detect planets, which is what the wobble method is all about. For that you need very high resolution spectroscopy which can be done just fine from the ground, and has been done fruitfully.

This mission is measureming the tiny photometric changes in a star's brightness that will occur when a planet transits its disk. The posters above are obsolutely correct in that it will only be able to detect systems in which the ecplitpic plane is almost directly allong the line of sight to the star. But, I think there is actually +- a few degrees allowance given that the star is so large compared to the planet, and because the planet itself is so very much closer to the star than we are. And finally, when you look at tens of thousands of systems, statistically you will expect some fraction of them to be aligned just the way you want.

The photmetric transit method is much harder to do from the ground, simply because it is that much harder to do ultra-precision photoemtry from the ground than it is spectroscopy.

This will truly be a revolutionary mission, so here's hoping it all works out.


By jaysan on 3/12/2009 5:11:45 AM , Rating: 2
the quote from the article says "dip in the star's apparent magnitude for *an* observer."

The key word is "an". So certainly, we Earthlings aren't necessarily in the right position to observe every planetary transit out there. As you say, we'll only see a fraction of the transits -- but that fraction is 1/200. With millions of stars to look at in our sky, then the fraction of observable transits could add upto quite a lot.

This census will help us get general odds of stars in general having planets, which will help put into context our own level of uniqueness in the universe.


By mattlenda on 3/6/2009 1:34:53 PM , Rating: 3
Correct, but Kepler cannot detect star wobble. It doesn't have the resolution.


By MicahK on 3/8/2009 4:35:50 PM , Rating: 2
That and the wobble technique works great for finding bigger planets (Jupiter sized +) but they are looking for Earth sized planets, which do not create as big as a wobble, and would need extremely precise optics and instrumentation to detect.


By arrowspace90 on 3/6/2009 12:35:31 PM , Rating: 2
It is about one system in a thousand. This is no secret and is reported on NASA's own site.
But they figure that there are sufficient stars where Kepler is looking that even at that ratio, there will be significant discoveries.
Now if they can figure out some way to observe the other 999.
I think this mission is the most exciting thing since Hubble.


RE: Kepler search for planets blooper
By oab on 3/9/2009 11:51:24 AM , Rating: 3
"All planets in stable orbits transit across their star during their own unique annual cycle. This causes a dip in the star's apparent magnitude for an observer."

That statement is 100% correct. Such a planet not visible to us because the transit does not occur in the right plane for us to see it might be visible by a different observer. The observer is a theoretical one, he does not mean "visible to humans" but "visible to someone or something that observes it which is able to observe it"


Starlight dims
By sonoran on 3/6/2009 2:46:28 PM , Rating: 2
Ok, so they can catch it when the light emitted by a star dims. How do they know we're not just looking at something akin to sunspots? Don't they dim the sun's light emissions?

I can see this finding many stars which "probably" have planets. But it would seem much longer observation, to see if the dimming repeats at regular intervals (as the planet repeatedly passes between us and the star),would be required to confirm the findings?




RE: Starlight dims
By General Disturbance on 3/6/2009 3:21:24 PM , Rating: 2
Yes you're absolutely right about sunspots dimming the light, and they will more than likely create a very large number of false detections.
However, more detailed analysis can be used to filter out the real planetary detections from the false ones, such as the depth, length, periodicity and overall photoemtric profile of the dimming. Sunspots have charasteric features for all those, which have been studied extensively and are relatively well known.
So yah it does present a problem, but there are indeed insightful ways to dig the needles out of the haystack. Repeated observation as you suggest, for example.


RE: Starlight dims
By Goty on 3/8/2009 5:21:08 PM , Rating: 2
Sunspots are actually an indicator of increased solar activity, so sunspots will not decrease the flux of radiation detected by Kepler, but rather increase it.


RE: Starlight dims
By General Disturbance on 3/8/2009 8:16:32 PM , Rating: 2
Sorry, that's wrong, but for the right reasons perhaps. Sunspots are an indicator of increased solar activity in that there are more sunspots, QED.
But sunspots themselves are actually cooler than the surrounding material, and hence they appear darker because luminosity generally goes as temperature to the fourth power.
So, sunspots do indeed cause a decrease in the total luminosity of the star. But this brings up a good point in regards to differentiating sunspots from planetary transits: because sunspots are cool, you will see a significant colour (temperature) change in the star when a sunspot first appears, while for a planetary transit the colour (temperature) of the star will remain the same because the transit blocks all wavelengths light equally - a transit does not change the temperature of the star. This is the primary method for distinguishing sunspot activity from a transit.


RE: Starlight dims
By Goty on 3/9/2009 12:23:38 AM , Rating: 2
While I congratulate your rudimentary application of the Stefan-Boltzmann law, you need to realize that the implications you drew only apply to the region of the sunspot itself and that the total luminosity of the star will increase with the number of sunspots.

Sunspots are regions of intense magnetic activity produced by the motion of the ions in the star's interior, motion which is created by convection currents which, in turn, are driven by the fusion of hydrogen into helium (in our sun's case) in the core of the star. Increased activity in the core of the star drives the convection currents faster, creating a larger magnetic field which, in some places, will actually inhibit the movement of warm material from the inner layers of the star to the surface (creating the cool region we identify as a sunspot). This increase in convection leads to an increase in the luminosity everywhere else.

So, while yes, the luminosity of the area occupied by the sunspot will decrease, the overall luminosity of the star will increase. There is much empirical evidence for this, including the correlation between the Maunder Minimum and the Little Ice Age.


RE: Starlight dims
By General Disturbance on 3/9/2009 1:29:04 AM , Rating: 2
Those are long period (multi year) processes. Planetary transits last on the order of hours. So, your objection doesn't really apply here.

If a sunspot develops while looking at the star, or, if a sunspot rotates around the limb of the star and into view, this will cause a relatively abrupt (order of hours) change in the brightness and colour of the star - the brightness will decrease, and the colour (temperature) will cool. This may look similar to a transit upon first look because transits also last around that long. However the depth of the photometric minimum will generally be much larger than that for a transit, and the colour will also change (become cooler) which it doesn't for a transit. Applied astrophysics...

Since you don't seem to appreciate it:
F = sigma*Teff^4. A small drop in Teff (effective temperature for you non-astrophysics majors), causes a significant drop in total flux (F), due to the fourth power dependence.

You are generally correct about sunspot cycles (multi-year processes keep in mind) affecting luminosity, but those effects don't really apply here because they're looking for order-hour changes in brightness.

And even for stars that are undergoing significant sunspot activity, the light curves for those stars are still relatively smooth and well behaved. And so a transit will still stick out like a little blip, and will not be colour-dependent. You could easily detect a transit around a short period Cepheid, for example (short period ~3d for Cepheids).
Certainly, stars of very poorly behaved photometric profiles will simply need to be filtered. They will look for the easy ones first.


Better call the Chinese
By on 3/6/09, Rating: 0
RE: Better call the Chinese
By Lanmar on 3/6/2009 9:46:22 AM , Rating: 3
I think we have a higher success rate for launches......wouldn't you say?
You can't be ready to throw in the towel after a recent failed launch.
I'd venture to bet you have probably quit everything you've failed at.
Sad, dude.


RE: Better call the Chinese
By on 3/6/2009 10:05:12 AM , Rating: 2
Or maybe you could just get a freakin sense of humor and recognise sarcasm when it slaps you in the face, ass.


RE: Better call the Chinese
By bhieb on 3/6/2009 10:33:52 AM , Rating: 2
And possibly you could conceded that sarcasm is primarily a verbal anomaly that does not translate well to text. Therefore don't curse people out when they take you literally for what you typed, barring any other clues how was one supposed to take your post (hence the /sarcasm clarification for text).


RE: Better call the Chinese
By on 3/6/2009 10:42:11 AM , Rating: 2
True, but this is a rather obvious example of sarcasm given the relative proximity of the event being referenced in the post to the current article. I didn't think I needed to explain all of my posts prior to posting them. Perhaps sarcasm is a lost art. </sarcasm>


CCD
By SecTech767 on 3/9/2009 1:01:48 AM , Rating: 1
Charged Coupled Device.

In the title they say it like its some sort of scientific breakthrough.

You guys have CCD's in your cellphone. They're in every digital camera.

I mean yeah, they're much more complicated, but not special.




RE: CCD
By Pakman333 on 3/9/2009 9:42:07 AM , Rating: 2
"CCD cameras are used in most digital cameras and optical scanners. "

Did you even read the article? That's why it's cool, it is similar but more advanced.


RE: CCD
By s12033722 on 3/9/2009 4:54:19 PM , Rating: 2
Actually, most camera phones and cheap digital cameras use CMOS sensors, which are ok for those applications but generally inferior to CCDs. They are better in one important aspect, though... CMOS sensors are cheap.


Some things...
By mattlenda on 3/6/2009 1:33:13 PM , Rating: 2
People assume that they haven't taken the ecliptic plane's issues into account... heh.

Another glaring issue I find almost offensive (and I'll explain why): Ames isn't doing any mission operations. All mission operations are carried out by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. This effort will be led by the Ball Aerospace engineers. Ames is strictly taking a back seat as far as mission operations go.

I say this because I am one of those people at LASP who will be talking to it...




By dOOMYLEIN on 3/9/2009 8:12:57 PM , Rating: 2
"each (CCD) measuring 50x25 mm. With a resolution of 1024x2200 each" now that's a monster low-light camera!




By CZroe on 3/12/2009 3:54:57 PM , Rating: 2
This is odd... the latest issue of Discover Magazine (got it in the mail a couple days ago) described something VERY similar to this, except that they were talking about a ground-based telescope made with a CCD array with the exact same intentions. I think the amount of CCDs in the array was even similarly stated to be about 40-something.

I remembered reading this and had to dig up this article to compare, but I left the magazine at work. :( I thought that it had to be the same thing and that the article here may have assumed it to be an orbital telescope, but now that I have read it again, I see that both are too specific and contradictory for one to be in error yet both are talking about the same thing, so I can only conclude that they certainly were not talking about the same satellite/orbital telescope. Discover described the other's techniques which will filter out atmospheric distortion from a ground-based site (I think they said it was in Hawaii) and even described the methods that it will use the CCDs to search for Earth-like planets and the regularity which it will re-scan areas to look for luminosity changes as a small planet covers a star and resuces the luminosity. If this was happening so soon, why write an article about the other without so much as a mention of this more-exciting project?




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