Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Awesome Kepler

I just finished a short article about the Kepler space probe, the ingenuity of which is breathtaking. Next time you look up at the Summer Triangle -- I look at it many summer nights -- you'll be looking more-or-less in the same direction as Kepler, at least when gazing in the direction of Cygnus and its main star, Deneb.

The probe's mission is to detect Earth-sized exoplanets by pointing its powerful light meter at 100,000 stars and then some, and never blinking or pointing away for three or four years while it watches for transits of those relatively small exoplanets. Small compared to almost all of the known exoplanets, which have a way of being Jupiter-sized gasbags or even bigger.

And what if Kepler discovers dozens or hundreds of Earth-sized planets among just those 100,000-plus stars, a tiny fraction of the starry night? We'll all still have to make our mortgage payments every month, do the dishes and take out the trash, but it will be an awesome bit of news in the older and more storied sense of that word.

Earth-sized probably doesn't mean copies of Earth, but presumably a fair fraction will be in that "Goldilocks zone," not too hot, or too cold, and have some water, though Kepler won't be able to determine that. Teeming with new life, maybe, but new civilizations? I suspect that at any given time we might be wondering about it, 99.999+ percent of any life-bearing planets in the cosmic neighborhood will be inhabited by the equivalent of blue-green algae. Still an awesome thought, if you asked me.

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