Kepler Mission – The Future Starts Here – With Stuart Atkinson
Tomorrow night I’ll get to bed late, I know I will, because tomorrow evening my astronomical society is holding a public observing event here in my town. As part of our celebrations of the INTERNATIONAL YEAR OF ASTRONOMY we’re inviting people to join us in a local park to look at Saturn through our telescopes. Weather permitting it will be a good night, with lots of visitors letting out amazed “Ooh!”s and “aah!s as they gaze upon Saturn’s rings for the first time. All being well I’ll get to bed about midnight…
… but not before setting my alarm for Ridiculously Early o’clock, because I absolutely have to be up, and sitting here, at my computer, by 03.30, to peer at my screen through gritty, sleepy eyes and watch nothing less than the birth of a new era of astronomy – the launch of Kepler.
Space missions and hyperbole go hand in hand, that’s a given. Every mission is “epic”, every launch is “dramatic”, every set of results “revolutionary” or “ground-breaking”. But in Kepler’s case, the excitement people are feeling about the launch is justified. For make no mistake, Kepler has the potential to do Change Everything. It has the potential to do nothing less than change our view of the universe, and transform our understanding of our own place in it. If Kepler “works”, if it succeeds, if it does what it’s been designed to do, on some wonderful day in the future, during a press conference held at NASA HQ, we will hear that Kepler has found what it was designed to seek, and as the scientists on the panel grin at each other, and the audience of journalists rise to their feet to applaud, we will be draw a new line on that Timeline of Astronomy, with “Before Kepler” on one side of it and “After Kepler” on the other.
For Kepler is a hunter. High above the Earth, bathed in cold starlight and reflecting the azure blue glow of Earth, it will fix its steely gaze on an area of sky to the side of Cygnus, and stare at it tirelessly, waiting, waiting, waiting to see one of the myriad of stars in its field of view dim briefly. If it dims in the right way, at the right time, that might be a sign that the telescope’s prey has indeed been spotted. If that turns out to be the case then BANG! our view of the universe will change, it’s as simple as that.
Because Kepler’s prey is planets. And by “planets” I mean real planets. Earth-sized, rocky, you-could-walk-on-them worlds, not the great bloated balls of hot gas that whizz and whip around their parent stars like demented phantoms. Almost all the “exo-planets” discovered so far have been these “hot Jupiters”, but I’m sorry – and I mean no disrespect to the scientists who discovered them – I just don’t feel that excited by them, I just can’t bring myself to think of them as planets, you know? Ok, technically they are… but I just can’t think of things that big and that hot, travelling so quickly and so closely around a star as planets, it doesn’t sit well with me. No, I like my planets to be rather better behaved, and not to skim around a star so closely that they’re almost surfing through its outer layers. Just me, then? Ok, fair enough, I can live with that. But I think a lot of people feel the same way, and just daren’t say it.
Ah, but the planets Kepler is looking for are real planets. Planets that might have dirt you could trail your fingers through, rocks you could heft in your hand, and cliffs and mountains you could peer up at and gaze down from. Kepler is looking for worlds that might have surging, surf-edged oceans to paddle in, rushing rivers and gurgling streams to cool your hot feet in, and brackish rain to wash your face in.
Kepler is looking for Other Earths around Other Suns. And if it finds them, well, that will change everything.
Because although we are pretty confident that there are Other Earths “out there”, the harsh truth is we just don’t know. True, the numbers tell us they are out there. The statistics say they have to be out there. The graphs and ratios and equations all scream “They MUST be there!” but We Don’t Know! We have no proof, no evidence. All we have is faith and a heart-rending longing, an almost overwhelming feeling of lonelyness that will only be eased if and when we find a world the size of Earth orbiting in the “Goldilocks Zone” around a buttercup golden star like Sol. Then, and only then, will we truly be able to allow ourselves to believe that we share this huge, beautiful, terrifying universe with other intelligent beings. Because until we find that first Other Earth, until we can double the number of known Earth-sized planets in orbit around stars from one to two, the appallingly bleak fact is that it really could just be us. We could be a fluke.
But if Kepler finds what it has been designed to look for, if it finds another Earth out there in the Black, then the universe so many of us have dreamed of and believed in since childhood – a Star Trek universe, a Babylon 5 universe, a Farscape universe rich with gloriously lush planets and teeming with life, with civilisations that have their own culture, art and history, their own gods and goddesses, their own music, theatre and literature – might actually be the universe we live in after all.
I don’t care what the intellectuals or the scientists say, that’s what they’re thinking too. I don’t believe them when they tell us coldly that Kepler is important because it will help them determine the number of rocky planets in the galaxy, or help them refine our models of solar system formation. They want to know if there’s a chance there might be life – intelligent life – Out There, and if they can find rocky worlds orbiting other stars then the chances of finding that life are much better.
That’s why I’ll get up at Ridiculously Early o’clock on Saturday morning, turn on my computer, and sit here at my desk, nervously drinking coffee out a shaking mug and watch Kepler’s countdown clock ticking down to zero. Then I’ll cross my fingers and toes and everything else as that Delta rocket rises from the pad, hoping desperately that it climbs straight and true and carries its precious payload into space. So much rests on this mission, it’s so important, thinking about it makes me feel sick and then giddy with excitement and then sick again.
Because think of it this way. If Kepler succeeds, if it finds another Earth in its field of view, the chances are there are others just like it but a lot closer, and one of those will, without doubt, be the destination of the first starship to leave the Earth, whenever that is. That’s not science fiction, that’s common sense. When we have the technical capability to build and despatch probes to other stars, we won’t waste our time and effort – and money – sending them off to suns orbited only by great fat bloated gas giants, we’ll want to send them to take images of worlds painted blue and green, worlds that look like, and remind us of, home.
Godspeed Kepler. The Future could literally start with you.