Saturday, 7 March 2009

Staring at the Suns

Kepler atop Delta II RocketNASA’s Kepler mission is set to launch in just under six hours.

Kepler is armed with a 95-megapixel camera, but it won’t be taking spectacular images of distant galaxies.

Missions like Cassini (which a few days ago threw back some awesome photos of a small moon embedded in one of Saturn’s rings) have been all abut the pretty pictures. But Kepler is all about the science.

All Kepler will be doing is staring at a patch of sky about the size of your outstretched hand. And it’ll stare at it for three-and-a-half years, looking for tiny dips in the brightness of stars.

Kepler (Concept)If these are repeated periodically (which is why such a long staring time is required) then it might indicate the passage of a planet between us and the star.

This is the next step in our search for exoplanets.

Specifically, we’re looking for Earth-like planets in the habitable zone (also known as the ‘Goldilocks’ zone: not too hot, not too cold, but juuuust right) around distant stars.

Why do this? Because it will help to solve one of the most profound problems ever posed and yet unanswered.

We genuinely don’t know how likely or unlikely our life on this planet really is.  The results of the Kepler mission will put some hard data behind this investigation.

It’s a big step on the way to answering the question: are we all alone out here?