Kepler blasts off in search of Earth-like planets

From the LA Times

Kepler, satellite

Malcolm Denemark / Associated Press

In a timed exposure, spectators watch from Cocoa Beach as the Kepler satellite launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. March 6.

The $590-million mission, jointly managed by JPL and NASA, will examine a star-rich stretch of sky for a planet where water could exist in liquid form.
By John Johnson Jr.

9:06 PM PST, March 6, 2009

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Friday on a three-year mission to find Earth’s twin, a Goldilocks planet where it’s neither too hot nor too cold, but just right for life to take hold.

The Delta II rocket, carrying the widest field telescope ever put in space, lifted off the launch pad at Cape Canaveral at 10:49 p.m. Eastern time.

The launch vehicle headed down-range, gathering speed as its three stages ignited, one after the other, passing over Antigua Island in the Caribbean and later over tracking stations in Australia before climbing into orbit.

Kepler will eventually settle down to scan tens of thousands of stars near the constellations Cygnus and Lyra in search of planets where water could exist on the surface in liquid form, a key condition for life as we know it.

“We have a feeling like we’re about to set sail across an ocean to discover a new world,” said project manager Jim Fanson of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. “It’s sort of the same feeling Columbus or Magellan must have had.”

The $590-million Kepler mission is jointly managed by JPL and NASA’s Ames Research Center in the Bay Area. The spacecraft carries a 15-foot-long telescope with a 55-inch mirror that can scrutinize a wide star field for the telltale dimming of starlight that occurs when a planet crosses in front of it, known as a transit.

Over the past decade, scientists have employed the same technique with ground-based telescopes to discover 340 planets circling other stars. But because the optics of ground-based instruments are compromised by atmospheric interference, most of the planets found so far are gas giants that orbit so close to their parent stars that any life forms would be incinerated.

read more at the LA Times

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March 7, 2009 1:36 am

“It’s sort of the same feeling Columbus or Magellan must have had.”
What, “I’m off to find a short-cut to The Spice Islands and come back loaded”
Undoubtably planets out there, with liquid water.

Ron de Haan
March 7, 2009 2:12 am

It’s great.
I am quite sure they will find a few earth look-a-likes.
Now we only need the right means of transport to start Kepler Intergalactic Holiday Express. The Green Movement will receive a rebate on the ticket costs.
Hopefully in business before the next Ice Age.

March 7, 2009 2:18 am

If a ‘Goldilocks’ (not too hot, not too cold) planet is found, one of the basic prerequisites for existence of advanced life is that such planet should have its own magnetic field (magnetosphere) to protect it from the host star’s radiation.
Apparently there are microbes which can survive high levels of radiation, I remember reading that microbes or bacteria have been found inside nuclear reactors?!
Any further info on this?

March 7, 2009 3:10 am

Ummm…note to NASA:
Just how much star-dimming is expected from an Earth-like planet passing in front of a Sol-like star? Especially from a distance of, oh, say 25 to a few hundred light-years?
If the discovered planets are similar to our Earth at approximately 8,000 miles diameter, and their star is like Sol at approximately 870,000 miles diameter, that Kepler telescope had better be mighty good.
Or is this supposed to find the gas giants as they pass in front of the star, and then we send Marvin the Martian off for a look-see? It only takes 2 or 3 hundred thousand years to get there, and another 25 years for the radio signal to report back…
Will we send Marvin the Martian off with a message “Don’t shoot, I am not a UFO!” Or are we planning to scare the crap out of the locals?
Can you just imagine the scrambling we would be doing, if the situation were reversed??
Houston, Watcher One.
Go ahead, Watcher One.
Uh…Houston, we have a problem.
Say again, Watcher One?
Uh…you are not going to believe this, but we just picked up an incoming object… it is sending out a radio signal.
Watcher One, what is the radio signal?
Well, they are playing what sounds like music…
Ok, Watcher One…what music?
You are not going to believe this…but it sounds like All We Are Saying, Is Give Peace A Chance….

March 7, 2009 4:10 am

“The Green Movement will receive a rebate on the ticket costs.”
Rebates are only good on one-way tix, of course.

March 7, 2009 5:25 am

There was Douglas Adam’s tale of the Golgafrinchan’s, who used to regularly get rid of the useless third of their population by making up a scare story of impending planetary doom, then packing them into ‘arks’ and blasting them off to colonise another planet….
Maybe we could move all the warmies up into the Andes in Patagonia or something. Nice and cool for them there, they’ll just need plenty of sunblock.

Gary P
March 7, 2009 8:16 am

ref: Roger Sowell (03:10:21)
Gas giants have already been spotted transitting stars. Mostly the ones detected orbit quite close to the star because the trigonometry makes the probability low for seeing one orbiting farther out. Most planets have been detected induced orbital wobble and the induced spectral shift.
The earth passing in front of the sun would cause the sun to dim by 1 part in 12,000 as seen at stellar distances. You would have to watch closely for an entire year to see it and the probability of being in the same plane is very low. Take a look at how rare Mercury and Venus transits of the sun are. Kepler will stare constantly at a fixed field of a lot of stars to try to spot the telltale light curve of a transit.
OT. Where does one go to find the temperature history of the local planets? I have seen a number of stories about the other planets and moons warming and I would like to know if there has been recent cooling as the sun is in idle mode.

Francois O
March 7, 2009 8:22 am

When I was a physics undergraduate in the 70’s, there was a “consensus” that, first, the probability of finding extrasolar planets was extremely low, and that finding one like the Earth was infinitesimal, and last, that finding extraterrestrial life was near impossible. On the other hand, everyone agreed that nuclear fusion was just around the corner.
Predictions are hard to make, especially about the future.

March 7, 2009 8:25 am

Gary P,
Here’s one reference: click

March 7, 2009 8:46 am

“Beam me up Mr. Scott. There is no intelligent life down here.”

M White
March 7, 2009 10:24 am

If Svensmark’s theory has any validity the habitable zone around a star may well depend on that stars location within the galaxy. Could be a lot of snowball earths out there.

March 7, 2009 11:30 am

Just waiting for a Canadian “nano” satellite having a cost of only $590.000 ( 1/1000th) that could send us RAW DATA without passing through censorship.

March 7, 2009 11:36 am

Gary P (08:16:07)
Thanks for the info. It seems to me that the likelihood of the planet being in the correct orbital plane would be around 1 out of 360 (degrees in a circle). Further, if they are looking for the dimming of 1 in 12,000 that telescope had better be really good. And, if they are looking for the dimming to repeat every 12 months, same as Earth’s year, they may be missing a few bets. Larger star means longer orbital period, smaller star the opposite.
I would work the problem the other way around. Find close-by stars aligned with our orbital plane. Perhaps they have telescopes watching our star and have noticed Jupiter passing that causes our star to dim, from their perspective. That ought to narrow down the possibilities.

Peter Melia
March 7, 2009 11:57 am

How far from us will the to-be-discovered planets be? Can they they be reached within reasonable time? If no, why bother searching for them?
It seems as if there are 2 possible search results.
The first is “no life”. The second is “Life”.
Then considering the second result there are 2 possible further results.
The first is “none-sentient life”. The second is “sentient life”.
And considering the “sentient life” result there are 2 possible further results.
The first is “sentient life with which we can communicate”. The second is “sentient life with which we cannot communicate”.
Communicatable sentient life breaks down into 2 possibilities.
The first is Primitive i.e unable to communicate with us for any reason. The second group can communicate with us.
So what are our possibilities of finding intelligent life so far?
Well….it would seem to be up to a 16 to 1 chance of finding intelligent life, already.
I am certain any mathematician could refine this back of the envelope calculation easily.
Then there is the time (years?…centuries?) to get there, and return….
Couldn’t NASA have found a better dartboard target for spending the the US taxpayers money than this programme?
For instance, wouldn’t the money be better spent nearer home, exploring in boring detail the asteroid belt, for recoverable minerals, to replace those being consumed at such a frantic pace here on Earth?

Darell C. Phillips
March 7, 2009 12:06 pm

OK, so we named ours “Kepler.” I wonder what the other guys named theirs?As they say, timing is everything. I just hope we find them before they find us, you know?

Mike Bryant
March 7, 2009 12:15 pm

The as yet to be found beings have already been put on the voting rolls and they also qualify for medicare and social security!

a jones
March 7, 2009 2:23 pm

Umm yes you would be surprised what aquatic creatures can happily grow in a nuclear reactor shield tank. As I recall we used to send samples off to a professor attached to the Natural History Museum for identification but I forget exactly what the little creatures were.
As to alien life the problem surely is less whether it might be sentient and capable of communication but whether we could or would even recognise it as such: or indeed it us.
I seem to vaguely remember a Sci Fi story, probably by Asimov, in which the Kings of the Mountain are informed by their servant that an inelligent life form has evolved and is doing things on the surface so they debate whether to contact it but by the time they decide their servant tells them that the life form has developed nuclear technology and exterminated itself with atom bombs: which rather dates it.
But whimsy though it may be the point is serious, we are the product of accident and evolution and whilst we might recognise a similar life form even if it used an alien biochemistry there might well be life forms we simply could not recognise as such. Or presumably they us.
Moreover there is a problem of timescales. We as a genus are about one thousandth the age of the earth and maybe we will survive for very long time yet, maybe not. But that does suggest that the kind of life we are looking for may not exist for any great length of time in terms of planetary lifetimes.
You can work out the odds on the back of an envelope putting in various values but when I have done so in the odd idle moment they don’t look at all good for this galaxy at least.
Not that I don’t applaud the idea of Kepler, there is always more to learn, it is an interesting experiment. We shall see what it turns up.
Kindest Regards

March 7, 2009 7:14 pm

@a jones (14:23:44) :
[…] “Not that I don’t applaud the idea of Kepler, there is always more to learn, it is an interesting experiment. We shall see what it turns up.”
I agree that it is interesting. We’ll have a mechanical observer staring into space; never blinking, never sleeping, just looking. I don’t hold much hope for Kepler finding another “earth” with a sentient population that can communicate with us. But I have hopes that it might “see” something that no one was looking for. Sometimes great discoveries are made just by observing and finding something new and curious.

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