Kepler telescope primed to search for earth-like planets
Wake me up when you find the space dames
Space: It's huge.
It's a lot of other things, but mostly huge. If you lose your keys in it, you're pretty much screwed.
NASA has a lot of ground to cover in its search for alien life. The agency made some progress recently by successfully demonstrating in the laboratory the technology behind its next space telescope designed to find planets similar to home sweet home. A panel of NASA scientists shared the news today at a press meeting at the SETI Institute in Mountain View.
Scientists currently have a census of over 200 Jupiter-sized planets orbiting near stars, but no real idea how common Earth-size planets are. NASA Ames's Jack Lissauer explains the focus on the big boys isn't because gas giants are the most common but because they're most easily detectable with today's equipment.
"It would be like looking from a distance at a street light at night and concluding most of the insects in the area are moths. There could be far more gnats flying around but you couldn't know."
And, if we want to search for life, we need to stick to where we think it can flourish.
Life as we know it is picky. To sustain it, a planet must orbit within a narrow band of distance from a star where water won't be permanently frozen or evaporated called the habitable zone.
Size also counts. If a planet is too small, it won't be able to hold an atmosphere well. The larger a planet, the higher its gravitational field; attracting more celestial bodies to itself and also affecting its ability to regulate atmospheric CO2.
Earth might have won the galactic lottery being the right size, material and position to sustain life — or maybe it's as common as snot.
Kepler will essentially be humanity's first scan of the cosmos' housing market. It won't send back beautiful Hubble-like pictures, and it won't detect other lifeforms — but it can tell us if we're surrounded by potential Earths or mostly alone.
Here's where the science comes in:
The best way to detect a small, earth-like planet outside our solar system is to catch it when the planet crosses the path of its parent star. By detecting the minute light disparity from the star when this occurs, we can calculate the planet's size and distance. Because a distant planet is 10 billion times fainter than the star, this is no easy endeavor. There's also no telling whether a planet will even orbit in front of the star from the angle we are viewing.
Kepler's secret sauce is its ability to watch a large piece of infinity at once. The space telescope will scan the same plot of cosmic real-estate with around 100,000 stars for four years. The Kepler team hopes the results will justify further funding to extend the time to six years.
Although most working on the Kepler project hope to find several Earth-like planets, there's certainly no guarantee.
"One of the most interesting things we could find is zero," NASA scientist William Boruki said. "That could mean we are alone in the universe."
NASA estimates the project will cost $600m. It's planned to launch in November of 2008, but, as space agency observers keeping score will note, that date is subject to change. Even the scientists at the meeting were skeptical.
"Let's just say I haven't bought the plane ticket yet," senior research scientist at McDonald Observatory William Cochran said.
The team sees Kepler as an important step in the search for alien life. Before NASA can take a closer look, it needs perspective — and there's a lot of perspective to be had in space. The agency will need to know how far they have to look and how many stars it will have to search before it can expect to find an Earth-like planet to further investigate.
Just don't piss off any Cylons. Okay guys? ®
Kill all humans
"All things considered, we should be leaving well enough alone. I seriously hope this Kepler mission fails to turn up anything. Not only for our sake. For the Universe's as well."
If any of those UFO stories are true and we are being visited by a more advanced race, surely they won't let the Human Virus spread throughout the Universe?
God help the universe!
The question is, what will we do when we find one? And it IS a case of when, not if. Believing that the Earth is the only planet of its type in the Universe is as logically absurd as believing that the Earth is the centre of the Universe. The same physical processes and laws that gave rise to the Earth also operate everywhere else, and while the conditions won't be right in every star system, there is no valid reason to suppose that stars like Sol with similar systems should not have life-bearing planets.
So, supposing we find an Earthlike planet orbiting say, Tau Ceti, Beta Hydri or Epsilon Eridani - all stars close to Sol in distance, size, mass and spectral class? Will that drive us to international cooperation in the development of a starship, or at least a robot probe? With the advent of quantum entanglement soon to eliminate the time-lag associated with long-distance communications, the only problem remaining is the seemingly insuperable c-barrier, and the energy cost in getting a vessel up to that speed. Perhaps with international cooperation and the world's finest minds attacking the problem, this may well be overcome.
Yet "Earthlike" does not necessarily mean "life-bearing". And "life-bearing" does not necessarily mean "intelligence-bearing". In fact, if we go by the Earth, in 4.5 billion years of existence Earth has fielded intelligent life for less than one five-thousandth of that time. And our civilisation has only advanced beyond horses, swords and sailing ships for less than one hundred-millionth of that time. So, given that all these planets will be in differing stages of development, the odds of finding a civilisation contemporaneously paralleling ours are in the millions-to-one against category.
So what when we do find a planet, we go there, and we find no intelligent life? Do we colonise, and destroy any chance the planet might have of evolving its own intelligent life? What if there is a civilisation still in its own Stone Age? Do we go there as gods and "educate" them - or more likely, enslave them? What if, against all odds, there is a civilisation like ours, that thinks that its way is right and ours is wrong - just as we think? Given the competitive behaviour of life in general, peaceful coexistence is orders of magnitude more unlikely than contemporaneous existence. Given human nature, I hold categorically that peaceful coexistence with any other civilisation would be absolutely impossible. Any ambassadors to the stars would be chosen by, and representative of, our greedy and exploitative ruling classes, and the outcome of any contact resulting from that is a foregone conclusion. Even if there is no intelligence, consider this: we can't take care of the only planet we have. What chance is there that we'll have any respect at all for another one?
All things considered, we should be leaving well enough alone. I seriously hope this Kepler mission fails to turn up anything. Not only for our sake. For the Universe's as well.
Slim odds to find a brother earth
The transit method is most sensitive to massive palnets in short period orbits. Massive planets make a larger eclipse so it is easier to see the flux drop, the further the planet from the star the more precisely aligned the orbital plane of the planet needs to be with us. The method gives an estimate of the diamater ratio of the planet star system not the mass. Other methods of planet detection include microlensing and pulsar timing. The Register Wednesday 25 Jan 2006 18:02