As the countdown to the Kepler launch tonight nears its final hours, it's hard not to let your mind run wild with what the planet-seeking satellite will find. But don't. Kepler is just one, albeit awesome, step in a multiphase, multigenerational journey to discover if Earth is the only spot in the universe capable of supporting, well, life like us. It may well be. Giant Jupiter-type balls full of braggadaccio and gas are more commonly sighted than Earth-like planets with delicate constitutions.
What's more, Kepler won't directly observe any exoplanets. Rather, it will be taking its planet-hunting cues by noting the dimming of stars. If a star looks dimmer to Kepler, that may be a sign that a planet is orbiting the star since someone or something passing in front of a light source can temporarily decrease the light emanating from it. This technique of detecting planets is called the "transit method." NASA compares it to watching a flea creep across a car headlight at night.
Like a cosmic stalker, Kepler will fixate on the same 100,000 or so stars, ensuring that it's not just observing a fluke occurrence. And Kepler's "eyesight" is fantastic. NASA reports that the satellite's telescope is so powerful that from its perch in space it can "detect one person in a small town turning off a porch light at night."
But I'm still worried that the launch won't go off without a hitch. Although Kepler isn't piggybacking on the same sort of rocket used by the recent ill-fated Orbiting Carbon Observatory, you never know. That kind of pressure makes me glad that I'm just an editor, not a rocket scientist.