The Kepler space telescope is about to reset your brain

Posted by David Eicher
on Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Welcome to “Dave’s universe,” the new blog by Dave Eicher, editor of Astronomy magazine, and astronomy and science popularizer. I’ll be bringing you new thoughts about astronomy, cosmology, nature, the hobby of astronomy, the sometimes disturbingly pseudoscientific culture we live in, and other miscellany. I hope you’ll enjoy it!

Marcie Smith is the mission director of the Kepler space telescope and also happens to be married to well-known Mars researcher Chris McKay, both of whom work at NASA Ames. On March 24, 2011, Marcie presented a lecture on Kepler and its initial, amazing burst of findings to a group of Astronomy readers will on a trip in Tunisia. David J. Eicher photo
While in Tunisia last week, I was able to hang out with a very cool couple. Marcie Smith is the mission director of NASA’s Kepler space telescope, the infrared observatory launched in 2009. Marcie’s husband, Chris McKay, is a well-known planetary scientist whose expertise on Mars currently has him working on the Mars Science Laboratory, set to launch late this year.

One evening, Marcie gave some of Astronomy’s readers an impromptu talk about Kepler and what it’s done. As you may know, astronomers have cataloged 539 planets outside our solar system orbiting nearby stars. And you may have heard that in February the Kepler team announced 1,235 new candidates, but they simply don’t have the time to check them out rapidly with Earth-based scopes to confirm their status. That work will go on for a while.

But the results will amaze the science world. The group of new planets reportedly contains 68 earthlike worlds and 54 planetary candidates within the habitable zones of their host stars. In other words, the roof is about to be blown off the world of finding other worlds.

Apart from the news you will soon hear about these 1,235 planets as they are confirmed, consider the larger issue of worlds out in the cosmos. Kepler’s spectacular camera is looking at one fixed area of the sky measuring 100° square between Cygnus and Lyra (a patch roughly centered between Deneb and Vega). In that small area of sky, the telescope has uncovered 68 possible earthlike worlds. And that’s observing over a very short interval; longer-interval observations will unveil other planets as they become visible via transits.

Kepler is set to reset the entire game of finding exoplanets, and it has just begun. Imagine extrapolating that 1,235 number over the whole sky, and realize that the scope is looking at a very small slice of the galaxy near to us, within just a few thousand light-years at most. Working the numbers over the whole sky and outward into the galaxy would produce hundreds of thousands of planets, and that’s in the Milky Way alone. How about those other 125 billion galaxies?

Clearly, vast numbers of planetary worlds exist in the universe. I asked Marcie how she felt about being in the first big wave of a line of discovery that will go on forever and ever. “Pretty neat,” she said. “We are clearly going to get a very different appreciation of the universe we’re in over the coming few years.”

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