Saturday, March 7, 2009

Kepler Mission

I forgot about doing my "Science Friday" post yesterday...I think the biggest deal of the week is probably the launch of Kepler spacecraft, tasked with looking into space for evidence of terrestrial-type planets in orbit of other stars. Though about 300 planets outside out own solar system have been detected (most spectacularly the direct telescopic observation of planet Fomalhaut b and three planets of HR 8799 last fall--see my 11/17/08 post), they are thought to be mostly huge gas giants. Kepler will search for rocky planets, and hopefully find some in orbits of their stars where the surface temperature would allow for liquid water.

The mission sounds a bit dull when they describe it as staring for three years at the same spot of space, but if it gets good data, it will be one of the coolest scientific achievements ever.  I really hope that the worldwide economic going-to-crap doesn't doom space science. I've long thought that one of the single greatest technical achievements of humanity is the Voyager 1 probe which still functions, has passed our solar system's termination shock and is expected to enter true interstellar space by 2015. We sf people already know that there are rocky, habitable-zone planets all over the universe, but when Kepler shows it in a straightforward way, it will be another huge accomplishment.

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