Kepler Mission – Yielding an Answer – With Jon Jenkins
Everyone on the Project that I’ve seen over the past few days are excited but outwardly calm. Each of us has a kernel of anxiety deep within, but the opportunity to explore Kennedy Space Center and share the experience with colleagues, friends and family is truly amazing and is distracting us from the anxiety. It’s like being on the biggest roller coaster in the world, where you are rattling up to first big hill and are catching the first glimpse of the steep downward slope just beyond the crest. You haven’t started flying downward, yet, but you know it’s going to happen any moment now, and you know that your heart is going to leap into your throat, and you’re holding your breath (inwardly), waiting for the big drop. I can’t wait for it to happen, but at the same time I’m savoring the moment: Kepler is safe on the launch pad. The potential science energy can’t be any greater than it is now. I’m waiting for the spring to unwind and for Kepler to be flung out to space which is it’s true home; it’s what Kepler is destined for.
I’ve been waiting for this moment for 14 years. Tonight, NASA Discovery Program’s Kepler Mission will blast off at 10:48 pm from Canaveral Air Force Station taking the hopes and dreams of myself and so many other people who’ve worked so hard for so long to make this moment happen. It feels like I’m on a roller coaster on its way up to the first big hill, ka-ching, ka-ching. I can just start to see the big drop just beyond the crest of the tracks, and at launch there will be no turning back and we’ll be taken along for one of the most thrilling rides of our lives. Yesterday I watched “Magnificent Desolation” at the IMAX theater at KSC Visitor Complex. Unbidden tears formed in my eyes and flowed down my cheeks towards the end of the film. The enormity of the goals and aspirations achieved by the Apollo Program are overwhelming.
The Kepler Mission carries on Apollo’s tradition of pushing the envelope of human ingenuity and technology. I feel truly privileged to have taken part in the development of Kepler and can hardly wait to see the data finally coming back from the flight instrument. Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World in 1492. Within a few decades the Balboa had reached the west coast of North America and gazed on the Pacific Ocean. In a few decades we, too, will have mapped out the distribution and frequency of planets of all sizes in our neighborhood Milky Way Galaxy. The previously uncharted frontier of discovery will have yielded the answer to a question that is thousands of years old: “Are there other Earths?”
We need to do a better job of verifying our new worlds’ identities than Columbus did. Significant time and effort will be required to follow up on the candidates identified in Kepler’s data. We won’t be able to directly confirm Earth analogs, so we’ll rely on bootstrapping ourselves to that goal. Large planets in short period orbits of a few days will be discovered early, and these can be directly confirmed by ground observations. Time and experience will allow us to push the boundaries out to smaller planets and to longer orbital periods. We’ve waited for 25 years to get Kepler launched since Bill Borucki published his first paper on transit photometry; I’m sure we can wait a few years for true Earth analogs to be emerge from the data!
Today Kepler sits poised on the launch pad waiting patiently to begin its journey of discovery. In a few years we’ll have witnessed the discovery of many new worlds, some of which may be home to other peoples who cast their gaze in the direction of Sol during their nights, wondering if other beings exist somewhere in the galaxy. Kepler won’t tell us whether these extraterrestrials exist, but it will tell us where their homes are. So I’ll watch tonight’s launch with a lump in my throat, and I expect, tears in my eyes, as Kepler finally ascends to its orbit and begins its historical observations.
SETI Institute Principal Investigator
Kepler Mission Analysis Lead
Photo by Seth Shostak/SETI Institute