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Rockets Are Fun

About an hour ago a Delta II rocket launched the latest astronomy mission, Kepler, into orbit and I watched, listened and received updates in other forms over the Internet. Rocket launches are always great spectacles: there’s the power and speed of the rocket; lots of noise, fire and smoke; and the ever present tension because of the uncertainty of success.

The Delta II is the second most reliable launch vehicle of all time – of 411 launches it has had only one partial and one total failure – so there was always a good chance the launch would be a success. But nothing can be taken for granted so its great to hear that everything went perfectly.

There are two cool things about this launch. First there is the rocket itself. The numbers are impressive. During the first part of the launch the rocket consumes a ton of fuel per second! After about 7 minutes its at a height of 100 miles, over 1300 miles away and travelling at about 15,000 miles per hour. Yes that’s 15 thousand. Pretty fast really, even for a fast car and aircraft enthusiast like me! For comparison, the fastest production car (the Buggati Veyron) can manage just over 250 miles per hour and the fastest aircraft (the SR71 Blackbird) flies at about 2,200 mph.

The second cool thing is the Kepler mission which has been put into orbit. This will fly in orbit around the Sun (not the Earth) but will follow the Earth around the Sun. It will be used to examine stars in the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra where it will look for subtle changes in the brightness of stars which will indicate planets crossing the star and reducing its total light.

Kepler has a 1 meter telescope and can detect changes in light of about 20 parts per million (meaning the star’s light drops by just 0.002%) which should allow detection of planets of Earth size or smaller.

Yes, rockets are fun. Missions like this, which have no “practical” benefit or monetary value are what science is all about. There are so many more pure science missions which could be launched but I suppose the reduction in spending on space science makes the missions which have survived budget cuts even more special.

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