Kepler’s Prima Lux – A Human Endeavor – With Natalie Batalha

Kepler’s first light also marks, for Beyond the Cradle, the arrival of a very special collaborator, someone who, I am sure, will be capable of taking us, with her passion, on great journeys towards the worlds to come. It is with great joy that I open BtC’s doors to Natalie Batalha, Kepler Co-Investigator (to know more about Natalie visit the Collaborators page):

 

We received word on Monday afternoon:  

Team,

 

The reviews conducted to ascertain readiness for the ejection of the cover on the Kepler photometer are finished. We now have permission to move the photometer axis into the ecliptic plane and eject the cover…

 

Kepler would soon be opening its eyes to the photons which began their journey hundreds of years ago, each with a story to tell us upon arrival.  As our attention turned toward our first light image, I thought about the “first light” experienced by Galileo about 400 years ago in the summer of 1609 as he looked at the night sky through an eyepiece for the very first time. I can imagine how it must have felt. Writing about his discoveries (Siderius Nuncius, 1610) he muses:   

In this short treatise I propose great things for inspection and contemplation by every explorer of Nature. Great, I say, because of the excellence of the things themselves, because of their newness, unheard of through the ages, and also because of the instrument with the benefit of which they make themselves manifest to our sight.  

Certainly all of us on the Kepler science team feel the excitement of seeing something for the first time.  But the idea of “first light” goes beyond the actual picture that will be transmitted down to Earth.  We are on the verge of seeing, discovering, and understanding something for the first time. And by “we” I mean humanity.  As a scientist, I relate to Galileo’s words and the idea that we do this not for ourselves but for every explorer of Nature. This is a human endeavor and one we are all sharing.   

The NASA Ames team gathered in the conference room.  We were tied in to the audio feed and the telemetry data from Mission Ops.  We listened to the engineers run through the procedures that would lead us up to Dust Cover Eject (DCE).  We watched graphical representations of Doppler measurements that indicate any motion of the spacecraft relative to its nominal orbital velocity.  When the dust cover is ejected, the spacecraft will recoil, and we should see the signal in the Doppler data.  We also watched metrics from the reaction wheels which would work to stabilize the spacecraft after DCE.  Finally, we watched a display of measurements from the Fine Guidance Sensors inside the photometer.  We would see them light up the moment they begin seeing starlight.    

The closer we got to DCE, the quieter the room became.  There was no countdown like there was for launch – rather a methodical run through of procedures and “thumbs-up.”  Then we saw the spike in the Doppler Data.  The measurements clearly showed evidence of the spacecraft antenna recoiling first toward the Earth and then away from the Earth.  But not for long.  The reaction wheels kicked in and quickly stabilized the spacecraft.  We watched them spin up as they did their job.  Finally, we saw the registers on the Fine Guidance Sensors light up. Stars!  We see stars!   

Less than 10 minutes from DCE, Mission Ops announced that DCE was complete, and that all systems were nominal. Cheering, clapping, and smiles all around. Somebody popped open a bottle of champagne.  Our Deputy-PI toasted the team, thanking them for their dedication and exclaiming “Let the planet hunting begin!”  

In creating powerful instruments, humans extend their senses and power of observation, making it possible to see what generations before us thought was un-seeable – to know what we thought was un-knowable. Can you imagine how Galileo would feel if he could see our modern instruments: behemoth mirrors coated with silver, laser guide stars, precision attitude control, detectors that record what our eyes cannot?  And to know that he was the person that tipped the cup that started the watershed which is modern astronomy. Not bad, eh?  

Tonight’s news to the extended science team went something like this:  

Team, 

Hooray. The dust cover ejected nominally and the spacecraft has restablized. We will start calibration with star light in the morning…

 We can’t wait.

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