Saturday, March 07, 2009

Looking For Friends

A lot of people know that we've found planets orbiting other stars. In fact, since 1995 scientists have discovered 342 of them, but so far they're all gigantic places, much bigger than the Earth. And they all orbit outside the "Goldilocks Zone," where all the numerous essential conditions for life to exist are "just right." What they want to find are planets like ours.

Yesterday evening they tried to change all that by launching Kepler, a mission to find Earth-like planets. The way it works is pretty simple: Kepler will stare at the same patch of sky day and night for 3 1/2 years looking for the light of stars to dim because planets are passing in front of them. This is really one of the same techniques we've used to find those gigantic planets.

But this time the observatory will be in space instead of on earth, so the view will be a lot clearer. Kepler is even pointed away from the sun and doesn't orbit the Earth, to keep light pollution to a minimum. The hope is we'll see so clearly that Earth-like planets will be detectable. The current thinking is that the chances of that are about 1 in 215.

Of course, this mission will only detect planet sizes and orbits (and, by inference, temperatures). If they find some about the same size as us, then they can build other probes to see if their air and water are "just right."


Kalypso said...

WOW! Never thought I'd see the day something like this would come about! Exciting news. I like that you're my reference on all the cool astrology stuff.

Pleonic said...

Yeah, it's neat and I hope they find something! I've always wanted to know what somebody from another planet would be like.