Friday, December 2, 2011

Reason #80: Kepler

For those of you not cool enough to know, the Kepler space telescope was launched a couple years ago at a cost of $600 million (or about four days in Afghanistan) with the goal of intensely analyzing the light coming from just one small patch of space. Using what's called the transit method, Kepler is designed to pick out the tiny variations that would signify the passage of a planet in front of any given star.

We've been using the transit method for a while now, but Kepler is sensitive enough to detect smaller, Earth-like planets within what's called the habitable zone of a solar system. It takes a lot of follow-up observation to confirm that any potential extrasolar planet Kepler detects is the real deal, and even once confirmed it's impossible right now to learn much more about these planets beyond that they exist.

That being said, the real beauty of Kepler's mission isn't in the data, it's in the extrapolation. By methodically scanning every available star in just one tiny area of the sky, we can take the amount of Earth-like planets in that area and deduce, for the first time, a more realistic sense of just what percentage of stars could at least potentially harbor life. In other words, we could finally fill in one of the numbers on the Drake Equation.

Just to give you an idea, Kepler found 1,235 potential planets in its first four months of observation, around 50 of which were in a habitable zone. That was announced in February. So I for one am very anxious to see what NASA has to say on Monday when they announce their results from the subsequent ten months.

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