It’s time to check in with our intrepid planet hunter, the Kepler telescope, once again, because there’s a real reason to celebrate: Kepler’s mission, which was supposed to end later this year, has been officially extended to 2016. It more than doubles the original mission time, and researchers and planet hunters worldwide are ecstatic about the extension.
I admit that this telescope is a personal favorite of mine, since my high school was named after the same scientist, Johannes Kepler, but apart from that Kepler has ignited interest in planetary scientists and folks like you and me alike, because it’s out there looking for planets like our own — smallish rocky planets that hang out in a star’s so-called “Goldilocks Zone.” Based on the story of the Three Bears the Goldilocks Zone is the distance from any given star where life as we know it could be sustained: not too hot, not too cold, but juuust right. In other words, there’s a possibility for liquid water to exist.
Looking for new real estate way out there? Kepler is your best location scout. It identifies stars with possible planets by measuring their brightness. When a planet passes in front of a star in one’s line of vision, the star gets a smidgen dimmer. Based on the speed of the dimming and how often it occurs and how much the star dims, scientists can make accurate estimates on the kinds of planets that might be orbiting this star. Kepler sends its observations to other observatories which then attempt to replicate its findings, thus confirming the planet’s existence.
Of course, this sort of research takes a lot of time and major patience. While Kepler has identified more than 2,300 candidates, Earth-based observatories are scrambling to keep up with all those discoveries. So far they have confirmed 61 planets, among those multi-planet solar systems, planets orbiting twin stars, and yes, rocky planets in the Goldilocks Zone.
Considering that Kepler is limiting its search to a puny 150,000 stars that’s a lot of planets already. If you tried to do that kind of research on every visible star … well, let’s just say that mankind would keep plenty busy for a very long time.
So why exactly are we looking for planets that are so incredibly far away we can’t even see them with the best telescopes? It’s not like we’ll ever have a chance to visit them, right?
Okay, we certainly won’t. But just think about how incredible a trip down the road to Wal Mart would seem to a person from the Middle Ages. Give us another 1,000 years and we’ll see what kinds of trips are possible then! People have never been very good at staying put — there’s always those that need to wander off and find new places, or at the very least know that other places are out there to begin with.
And of course we want to know: are we alone?
So far we haven’t found conclusive proof that life exists elsewhere in our own solar system. But sooner or later the knowledge will sink in that solar systems are a dime a dozen, and with that many candidates out there, well, there might just be another bunch of curious minds who are watching our sun with their own version of Kepler, notice our planet darken the sun every so often, and wonder what we had for lunch today.
Those folks in the Middle Ages built cathedrals that took many generations to complete. They trusted their descendants to finish the job they started, and that they would appreciate the effort and planning. There’s a little bit of that spirit in Kepler’s research today. We may never see one of those planets the telescope has found — but maybe those that may come after us will do so.
Check out the Kepler Space Telescope website at http://kepler.nasa.gov/
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org