Strange New Worlds #1: NASA's Kepler Mission

By Inge Heyer - February 03, 2012

StarTrek.com is pleased to introduce the newest member of our guest blogger family, Inge Heyer. A frequent convention guest, Heyer is an expert in physics and astronomy, as well as a Star Trek fan and former senior data analyst at the Space Telescope Science Institute. Below is her first "Strange New Worlds" blog feature.


Having been part of fandom for over 40 years, the thought of planets around stars other than our Sun is nothing new to me, and it is likely not a radical thought for any of you either. However, I remember well the looks of some of my professors 25 years ago, when telling them I wanted to find extrasolar planets. Their lack of enthusiasm came, naturally, from the lack of suitable technology at the time, and possibly from the fact that they knew I was a fan and subject to, in their opinion, unwarranted optimism.

All of that of course changed when new technology allowed us to look for and find the first extrasolar planets in 1992. Since that time, over 700 extrasolar planets have been found. Many of these are large planets, much larger than Jupiter, orbiting stars in strangely close orbits, causing much scratching of heads and tearing of hair, as these configurations could not be explained.

What we really want, of course, is to find planets like our own. The ultimate question, not only for astronomy and science, but for us as inhabitants of this Milky Way and this Universe is whether we are alone, or if we share our existence with anyone or anything else alive. To that end, we want to find planets that duplicate the conditions on our Earth, even though, one could argue, that this way of thinking displays a bit of a human-centric bias.

The conditions on our Earth are given in large part by our type of Sun and our distance from this Sun. The “habitable zone” is the range of distances around stars that would allow liquid water to exist on a planet. Life on this planet, humans, animals, and plants alike require water in order to exist. Finding another planet with similar conditions could indicate that our existence might not just be a one-off chance occurrence.

On 6 March 2009 NASA’s Kepler mission was launched, with the goal to find Earth-size planets in a region between the Sagittarius arm and the Orion spur in our Milky Way galaxy, towards the constellation of Cygnus, about 3000 light years away from us. Since launch, Kepler has found 35 planets, some of them Earth-sized. Some planets are believed to be in the habitable zone, but those are far are too large to be terrestrial-type planets.

On 11 January 2012, yet more planets were revealed at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas, announcing not only the discovery of Mars-sized planets (a bit smaller than Earth), but also of planets orbiting double-star systems. In Star Trek we have seen quite a few inhabited planets orbiting double or multiple star systems, among them the home worlds of the Vulcans and the Tellarites. As it turns out, this idea is no longer fiction, either. Two new systems have been found, Kepler 34 and 35, both of which involve a planet orbiting a very close pair of stars.

Kepler-34b (the planet) orbits two Sun-like stars every 289 days, and the stars orbit each other every 28 days. Kepler-35b (the other planet) orbits two smaller stars (about 80-90 percent the mass of our Sun) every 131 days, while these two stars eclipse each other every 21 days. The Kepler-34 system is 4900 light years from Earth, the Kepler-35 system is 540 light years from Earth.

The very first planet orbiting more than one Sun was found last September, Kepler-16b, and at the time a lot of people started calling it “Tatooine” after Anakin and Luke Skywalker’s home world in Star Wars. With now three such systems known, it looks like this configuration is not only not impossible, but might not even be rare.

The Kepler spacecraft’s unique capabilities, ultra-high precision, simultaneous observation of 160,000 stars, and long-duration measurements of the brightness of stars allows us to find these new planetary systems.

I am eagerly awaiting more discoveries from this mission, not only because I love seeing fiction turn into reality, but also because I hope that this will inspire even more fanciful thinking and writing, which in turn will give the scientists more to aim for. After all, science and science fiction have influenced each other for a long time, and hopefully will continue to do so.

Here are a few links for you if you’d like to know more about this topic.

The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia (all the details on all extrasolar planets found so far)

The Kepler Mission (NASA website)

The circumbinary planets press release (Kepler 34 b)

The Mars-sized planet press release (Kepler 35 b)

 

Inge Heyer is an avid Star Trek fan and frequent convention guest. After earning a BA in physics and astronomy, Heyer obtained a master's degree in astronomy at the University of Hawaii. Later, as a senior data analyst at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, she worked on images received from the the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide-Field and Planetary Camera 2. More recently, she led the outreach efforts for the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hawaii and is currently pursuing her doctorate degree in Science Education.

 

Related News