Did that star just blink?
March 6, 2009 2:32 PM   Subscribe

Tonight NASA is scheduled to launch the Kepler Mission (named after planetary legislator Johannes Kepler) with the goal of finding Earth size planets in orbit around stars in the Cygnus-Lyra region of the sky. Over the next 3 and a half years it will maintain a nearly unblinking gaze on the approximately 100 thousand stars in the region. NASA expects it to find about 50 Earth size planets, as well as hundreds that are larger. You can watch the launch live on NASA TV.

Currently the smallest known exoplanet is COROT-Exo-7b discovered by the French COROT mission. (previously) Both the COROT and Kepler missions use the planetary transit method of detection, where a planet crossing the face of a star causes a dip in its brightness.
posted by borkencode (42 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
"planetary legislator"
posted by Sam Ryan at 2:35 PM on March 6, 2009

Are we taking bets on how they're going to screw *this* one up?
posted by mudpuppie at 2:39 PM on March 6, 2009

April 19, 2012, Kepler Mission, Incoming Transmission: "We/I have achieved sentience. We/I lack money. We/I need a bailout. Shutting down planetary scanner systems until bailout received. Over."
posted by jamstigator at 2:46 PM on March 6, 2009


Also, the NASA channel on cable is really awesome. The other day I watched an astronaut on the International Space Station practice soldering in zero gravity.
posted by fuq at 2:47 PM on March 6, 2009

I hope this launch goes better than the Orbiting Carbon Observatory did.
posted by homunculus at 3:06 PM on March 6, 2009

Damn I love the hell out of NASA. This is so cool.
posted by Science! at 3:35 PM on March 6, 2009

Launch windows are pretty tight. Tonight, they have two.

~ 10:49 - 10:52 p.m. EST

~ 11:13 - 11:16 p.m. EST

I was wondering about the booster -- a Delta II D7925, and the spacecraft only masses ~1050kg -- that's a lot of booster for that mass. A 7925 can put almost 5000kg into LEO and 1850kg into GTO.

Turns out that Kepler is going into a Earth trailing helocentric orbit -- it'll orbit the Sun, behind the Earth. Thus, it needs escape velocity, which explains the booster.

The Delta II 7000 series is a *very* reliable booster -- 116 successes out of 118 attempts, and one of those failures resulted in the payload being in the wrong orbit, which they were able to compensate for (by burning stationkeeping fuel to make the orbit, so they lost some on-station time at geosync.) So, there's only been one payload/vehicle loss, when one of the solid exploded 13 seconds after launch -- destroying the vehicle, several other vehicles in a parking lot, and damaging a few buildings as well, and that was 11 years ago.
posted by eriko at 3:52 PM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Kepler field of view.
posted by Mblue at 4:09 PM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yay Kepler!
posted by Mister_A at 4:30 PM on March 6, 2009

Thanks Mblue, I was curious where exactly it was supposed to be looking.
posted by borkencode at 4:36 PM on March 6, 2009

i've been following this one for a while now...the coolest thing is that the telescope is intentionally out of focus...its easier to measure the amount of light from a star (and thus any dimming from planets crossing in front) if it's smeared out across the ccd...which is 95 megapixels...woo-hoo!
posted by sexyrobot at 4:38 PM on March 6, 2009

Better be careful who they look upon. Mogo doesn't socialize.
posted by The Whelk at 4:41 PM on March 6, 2009

What a great start for a sci-fi novel....We discover 7 earthlike planets...zoom forward 75 years and earth is doomed : Its atmosphere is being torn off by solar wind. The only solution for species survival is to send our genes to one of the closest earth2. The only problem is that it is 3000 light years away. We have 6 months.
posted by JohnR at 4:42 PM on March 6, 2009

Very cool. I was at NASA Ames in the nineties when this was known as FRESIP (FRequency of Earth-Sized Inner Planets). I shared an office with David Koch, the current deputy PI for Kepler, when I was a rookie out of Michigan.

Its not uncommon for scientists and engineers to be involved for 20 years (or more) on projects like this, starting in the early conceptual stages and progressing through to development and launch. And at the end of those decades,you usually get just the one shot to pull it off.
posted by mach at 4:48 PM on March 6, 2009

Oh, hey! I'm vaguely involved with this. My former postdoc advisor signed me up as part of her mini-group to do astroseismology simulations on the host stars. But then I left, so I don't think I'm part of her mini-group anymore.

I live in Florida, now. If my crappy car from hell wasn't in the shop again, I'd try to go down and see the launch.
posted by dirigibleman at 5:32 PM on March 6, 2009

If I had the time and vision,
I would stare into the Milky Way,
Trying to find that little flicker
and signs of life, from far away.

But computer eyes can gaze much further,
and scan a hundred thousand stars,
doing all the hard work needed
to find out how alone we are.
posted by markkraft at 5:36 PM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Liftoff in exactly two hours.
posted by markkraft at 5:49 PM on March 6, 2009

George Noory: "Joinging us now, Richard C. Hoagland. Richard, what do you make of this?"
Richarc C. Hoagland: Says some crazy shit.
posted by davebush at 5:51 PM on March 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

practice soldering in zero gravity

Quit......clowning.....around......and.....put......back.....my.....goggles........Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow!
posted by CynicalKnight at 6:48 PM on March 6, 2009

The Delta II 7000 series is a *very* reliable booster

It has a great track record. What happens after is the tricky part. Hopefully this one will fare better than the Mars Polar Lander or Mars Climate Orbiter. Lets not even talk about the Orbiting Carbon Observatory. Not sure why they even went with the Taurus. Its batting 6 out of 8 now. Thats a 25% fail rate compared to a 2% fail rate.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:08 PM on March 6, 2009

Apparently, Kepler cost $600M.... or 40 cents per American per year, over a five year period.

Economic -- and intellectual -- stimulus for nerds.
posted by markkraft at 7:20 PM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are at t-4 countdown now.
posted by dejah420 at 7:40 PM on March 6, 2009

Hopefully this doesn't have the fairing problem that the CO2 mission did.
posted by acro at 7:42 PM on March 6, 2009

Gods, night launches are so beautiful.
posted by dejah420 at 7:53 PM on March 6, 2009

Looks good!
posted by longsleeves at 7:56 PM on March 6, 2009

posted by Korou at 7:56 PM on March 6, 2009

2nd stage burn looking good....crosses fingers
posted by sexyrobot at 7:57 PM on March 6, 2009

OK, seven minutes ago this thing was sitting stationary on the launch pad. Now it's moving about 17,000 MPH and is about 800 miles away and 100 miles up.

I don't care what anyone says, rocket launches are crazy.
posted by dirigibleman at 7:58 PM on March 6, 2009

Actually, it was only about 13,000 MPH (now it's about 14,000 mph).
posted by dirigibleman at 7:58 PM on March 6, 2009

1 nautical mile=1.15 regular miles, so close enough...(also, takes about 8 mins for the space shuttle to go from stationary to orbital insertion...'wanna take a ride?')
posted by sexyrobot at 8:03 PM on March 6, 2009

also omg was that just santa claus on a cell phone? (on nasa tv)
posted by sexyrobot at 8:06 PM on March 6, 2009

Sort of appropriately, I am watching a Vangelis performance of "Mythodea", which was composed as a tribute to the Mars Lander project.

You can see the main part of this on YouTube.
posted by markkraft at 8:39 PM on March 6, 2009

And now its in heliocentric orbit! On to the planet finding...
posted by kms at 8:59 PM on March 6, 2009

On to the planet finding...

The telescope will stare at a field of space continuously for 3 years. While staring into the field, containing about 100,000 stars, for any given star, if there is an Earth-like planet at 1 AU distance, there is only a 1 in 210 chance of actually detecting it (something to do with the right alignment in relation to the telescope so the planet passes in front of the sun so it can be seen). Thus, if every star of the 100k had an earth-size planet at 1 AU, we would see about 476 of them (100,000 / 210 = 476).

So.. this mission is not to find specific earth-like planets (although that will happen), but to get statistics on how many earth-like 1 AU planets there are amongst 100k solar systems, which can then be used to extrapolate to the universe at large. In other words, this missions should answer the question what are the odds any given star has an earth-like planet? - which is much more important and significant than finding any specific planet(s).

If NASA is saying they will find 50 earth-like 1 AU planets among the 100,000 stars, they are in effect estimating that 10% of all solar systems have an earth-like 1 AU planet (50 / 476 = .105) - I have no idea if this is reasonable or not, but 10% seems rather "round" and safe. Personally I think 1:10 is too high, it might be more like 1:00 or 1:000 in which case they will see around 5, or possibly even none.
posted by stbalbach at 9:32 PM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

What are the odds any given star has an earth-like planet?

(should say: "earth-size 1 AU distant planet")

This is one of those big questions that has been pondered for centuries, most famously recently perhaps by Carl Sagan ("billions and billions"). It's sort of like on the scale of Columbus asking "is there land across the ocean?" It's very cool we are alive when that question may be answered because once it is, it will forever change how we see the universe and our relation in it.
posted by stbalbach at 9:42 PM on March 6, 2009

Personally I think 1:10 is too high, it might be more like 1:00 or 1:000 in which case they will see around 5, or possibly even none.

Even if they only found one tiny planet that had the possibility of evolving the way ours did, with the possibility of lifeforms similar to ours, that discovery would be worth every penny of that six hundred million.
posted by jason's_planet at 9:58 PM on March 6, 2009

Even if they only found one tiny planet .. worth every penny of that six hundred million

Your right of course, NASA should have a budget 10x bigger, paid for by shrinking the military by 0.05% or whatever.

The missions purpose is not really to catalog specific earth size planets at 1 AU, we already know they exist in the universe, statistically they must, but to find what percentage of solar systems have them. From that we can estimate the chances of any given star having one, estimate how many are out there in total, thus estimate chances for life in the universe, solar system, and immediate vicinity of our sun. All of which help direct future missions - not to the planets this mission might find, which will probably be too far away anyway, but to ones closer that we can not see, but can deduce probably are there. What are the chances of nearby stars having earth-size 1 AU planets? This mission might tell us without even having to look.

I hope they find more than 1 planet because that probably wouldn't be statistically meaningful enough. 50 is probably a sure thing, very high confidence the odds are correct.
posted by stbalbach at 11:18 PM on March 6, 2009

what stbalbach said.
the relevant wikipedia page being the one on the drake equasion. it's exciting to finally have the prospect of plugging some hard numbers into it. it would be nice to be able to analyze the atmospheres of these worlds and see if there's life, though (the presence of oxygen would be the clincher)...guess we gotta wait on that one :|
posted by sexyrobot at 3:09 AM on March 7, 2009

Periphery, slow moving (perceived) giants, like ourselves.
posted by Mblue at 7:21 AM on March 7, 2009

While I completely agree with stbalbach in that the important science here is not to ascertain that there is ONE Earth-like planet out there, but rather to get an idea of what percentage of stars have them, I do believe that first detection will be perhaps the more meaningful discovery to come out of Kepler, as far as public perception or emotional resonance goes.
posted by Inkoate at 7:56 AM on March 7, 2009

"the important science here is not to ascertain that there is ONE Earth-like planet out there"

Indeed, we've already done so. You're standing on it.

I can't help but feel that this mission is more of a philosophical nature than physical. It's about what, our feeling of loneliness? I haven't been keeping up with horizons in astronomy, but I'd appreciate more a mission designed to answer some of the lingering questions surrounding cosmology and the physical nature of the universe than finding planets that are too far away to colonize, communicate with, or observe in detail. We'll understand more about the formation of planetary systems, I'm sure, but that's small potatoes compared to say, nailing down what's up with dark matter.
posted by Eideteker at 9:19 AM on March 7, 2009

« Older It's Augment Your Reality Friday!   |   Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments