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Electronic glitch to halt NASA’s planet hunting mission

Last Updated: Saturday, October 31, 2009 - 12:40

Washington: NASA’s Kepler mission, which would search for planets around other stars, is unlikely to detect any Earth-like exoplanets before 2011 due to an electronic glitch.

According to a report in Nature News, the delays are caused by noisy amplifiers in the telescope’s electronics.

The team is racing to fix the issue by changing the way data from the telescope is processed, but the delay could mean that ground-based observers now have the upper hand in the race to be the first to spot an Earth twin.

“We’re not going to be able to find Earth-size planets in the habitable zone — or it’s going to be very difficult — until that work gets done,” said Kepler principal investigator William Borucki, who revealed the problem on October 29 to the NASA advisory council at a meeting at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

Kepler, which launched on March 6, is staring at 100,000 stars in a specific patch of sky.

The telescope is designed to look for the slight dimming of light that occurs when a planet transits, or crosses in front of a star.

The problem is caused by amplifiers that boost the signals from the charge-coupled devices that form the heart of the 0.95-metre telescope’s 95-million-pixel photometer, which detects the light emitted from the distant stars.

Three of the amplifiers are creating noise that compromises Kepler’s view.

According to Borucki, the noise affects only a small portion of the data, but the team has to fix the software so that it accounts for the noise automatically.

He said that the fix should be in place by 2011.

The noisy amplifiers were noticed during ground testing before the device was launched. “Everybody knew and worried about this,” said instrument scientist Doug Caldwell.

But in the end, the team thought it was riskier to pry apart the telescope’s electronic guts than to deal with the problem after launch.

Borucki said that the team was probably going to have to wait at least three years to find an extrasolar Earth orbiting in the habitable zone anyway.


First Published: Saturday, October 31, 2009 - 12:40
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