Kepler Space Telescope Searches for Star Trek's M Class Planets
The Search for Habitable Planets
NASA has set out to answer one of the questions that have haunted humanity since the time of the ancient Greeks, are we alone in the universe or are there other earths out there, the Roddenberry M Class planets of Star Trek fame? To begin answering the question, the United States space agency developed a telescope senstive enough to detect the dimming of light around a distant star when an earth-sized planet transits in front of that star. To accomplish this feat the optics on Kepler are so sensitive that if the telescope were pointed to the Earth at night from space it could detect the dimming of a porch light as someone passed in front of it. If the Kepler mission is successful and discovers that most stars have their own Earths, the possibility that we are not alone in the galaxy and that other intelligent life is present in the galaxy and the universe beyond becomes increasingly likely.
The 5 year mission ... well 3 to 5 year mission ... is to search a portion of our own Milky Way galaxy for earthlike planets orbiting their stars within the "habitable zone," the zone which is the distance from the star that keeps the planet warm enough to have liquid water, an atmosphere, and the rest of the conditions for life as we know it. In our system, that distance is roughly 93 million miles from the sun or 1 AU.
Currently the Kepler Space Telescope is orbiting Earth at a distance of 3.7 million miles. At that distance it takes 40 seconds for a command to reach the spacecraft and for the response to return. By comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope is orbiting at a mere 350 miles above the planet, which at the time of this writing has been in successful operation for 19 years and is being repaired for the final time by a space shuttle crew.
On April 16, 2009, Kepler successfully captured its first view of the planet hunting area of the galaxy in the Cygnus-Lyra region of the galaxy. This is a fertile hunting ground containing roughly 4.5 million stars. NASA scientists have their work cut out for them. As of May 12, 2009, scientists have deemed the Kepler Space Telescope fully functional and have begun to search for planets around other stars. The first scientific data will be sent back to Earth on June 18. Now don't hold your breath waiting for the results as it will take years to analyze the data and discover the right planets in the right place around the right stars. The science fiction world of Star Trek draws a little closer as Kepler begins its exploration, looking closer than any telescope has looked before.
Once Kepler has conducted its planetary census, determining just how many earth-like planets are to be found in the galaxy, the results will determine the future course of NASA's research. Should the numbers of potentially life-bearing planets prove to be high enough, NASA will deploy a more sensitive telescopic array into space, a telescope so sensitive it will be able to determine the chemical makeup of earth-like planets' atmospheres and whether those planets are truly life-bearing bodies.
Until Kepler reports and the data is analyzed, it is fascinating to know that other telescopes on the ground and in orbit have found hundreds of planets scattered among the stars, some in configurations that are rewriting what we know about planetary formation and orbital mechanics. They are getting closer to finding planets of Earth's size every day. I predict it won't be long before an Earth-sized planet appears in the Goldie Locks Zone, the everything's just right zone where liquid water is present on the planet. Planetary scientists are also busy learning to read atmospheres to be able to determine if the chemical signatures of life may be found on another world. Hopefully, this will happen soon.
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