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Nasa planet hunter seeks new Earths
Nasa's planet-hunting telescope, Kepler, has rocketed into space on a historic voyage to track down other Earths in a faraway patch of the Milky Way.
It is the first mission capable of answering the age-old question: Are other worlds like ours out there?
Kepler, named after the German 17th-century astrophysicist, set off on its unprecedented mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida, thundering into a clear sky embellished by a waxing moon.
"It was just magnificent. It looked like a star was being formed in the sky," said Bill Borucki, Kepler's principal scientist.
"Everybody was delighted, everybody was screaming, 'Go Kepler!'"
Kepler's mission will last at least three and a half years and cost £428 million.
The goal is to find, if they exist, Earth-like planets circling stars in the so-called habitable zone - orbits where liquid water could be present on the surface of the planets.
That would mean there were lots of places out there for life to evolve, Borucki said.
On the other hand, "if we don't find any, it really means Earths are very rare, we might be the only extant life and, in fact, that will be the end of 'Star Trek'."
Once it is settled into an Earth-trailing orbit around the sun, Kepler will stare non-stop at 100,000 stars near the Cygnus and Lyra constellations, between 600 and 3,000 light years away. The telescope will watch for any dimming, or winks, in the stellar brightness that might be caused by orbiting planets.