If you ever get the chance to witness a nighttime satellite launch, do it.
I've only seen one, back in 1978, but the image of that muscular Atlas booster lighting up the darkness with a pillar of flame will forever be seared in my mind.
I was waxing nostalgic last night while watching the televised liftoff of NASA's Kepler spacecraft. Right on schedule, at 10:49 p.m. EST, the mission's Delta II rocket sat momentarily engulfed in a fireball of its own making before easing upward and roaring off into black sky. It was beautifully clear over southern Florida. Tracking cameras easily showed the Delta's two sets of strap-on boosters peel away from the main rocket, their fuel spent. I even saw the first-stage engine's shutdown far out over the Atlantic.
Kepler isn't your typical spacecraft, the kind that whizzes around every 1½ hours or so in a planet-hugging orbit. Instead, it has become a solar satellite, trailing Earth by some 1,000 miles (1,600 km) for the moment and stretching that to millions in the months ahead. Project designers chose this tail-chasing-dog approach in order to give the craft a view that's virtually unobstructed.
Nor is Kepler a typical mission — not that "typical missions" are uninteresting or unimportant. It's a planet hunter, pure and simple. Kepler will continually monitor the brightness of stars and pick out the ones that periodically dim ever so slightly — signaling that an alien world is passing across its star's face and thus blocking a tiny fraction of its light.
In about three months, once engineers have checked out its electronics and tweaked settings, NASA's newest space observatory will slew over to the Cygnus-Lyra border and then just stare, and stare, and stare some more. Kepler's telescope, 36 inches (95 cm) in aperture, will watch an estimated 100,000 stars in 42 detector fields totaling an amazing 105 square degrees. It all seems so simple, yet in some form or another this mission has been on the drawing board of its champion and lead scientist, William Borucki (NASA-Ames Research Center), for 17 years.
We'll be hearing lots more about and from Kepler in the months ahead, as it starts to rack up assorted "hot Jupiters" orbiting close to their parent stars and, Borucki hopes, a handful of Earth-size worlds in about three years' time. For now, enjoy this replay of the launch — and imagine yourself craning your neck to watch it soar into space as your toes wriggle in the warm beach sand.