Thursday, January 15, 2009

Boldy Going

NASA is preparing to launch a probe that will look for Earth-sized planets in other solar systems.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. – the Boulder, Colo.-based NASA contractor responsible for developing the Kepler flight system and supporting mission operations – recently completed the spacecraft’s final pre-ship checkout and delivered the spacecraft to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., for a March 5 liftoff on a Delta 2 booster.

“In order to find Earth-sized planets, you need to stare at the same place in space and look for dips in the light curve,” said John Troeltzsch, Ball Aerospace program manager for civil space systems. Kepler initially will look at 140,000 stars, with project scientists paring the field of study down to 100,000 stars, Troeltzsch said. Building the NASA Discovery-class Kepler has meant harnessing a trio of key capabilities: pointing accuracy, a very large field of view and low-noise electronics to maximize the ability to read data from the sensitive detection system.

“It’s a very sophisticated machine,” Troeltzsch told Space News in a Dec. 16 interview. The technology to undertake Kepler was not available until just a few years ago, he said, “so we really are at the right place at the right time.”

Part of that opportune timing has been the increasing number of extrasolar planets detected to date, most of which have been at least the size of Jupiter.

Over its three and a half year mission, Kepler will attempt to detect planets 30 to 600 times smaller than Jupiter. Given that Earth-sized worlds do exist around stars like the sun, Kepler is expected to be the first to find them, and the first to measure their frequency. Locating rocky worlds like Earth, including those that lie in a star’s habitable zone, could mean identifying planets where liquid water, and perhaps life, could exist.

I’ve never doubted that there are other planets out there that support not just life but sentient beings and civilizations. The odds are just too good, given the sheer number of stars and solar systems out there. The simple fact that we haven’t found them or they us — at least outside of the pages of the National Enquirer — is only because we don’t have the means of communicating with them over such a long distance.

That, or they know we’re here but because we’re such a paranoid and primitive life form — we can’t even travel faster than light — that they’ve decided we’re not worth contacting.