Kepler's Impact on the Coming Decade

by Fergal Mullally

Support Scientist for the Kepler Science Analysis Systems

Kepler Science Office, NASA Ames Research Center

Work on astronomy largely ground to a halt this morning as the Decadal Review was published outlining the direction the field should take over the next 10 years.  With so many bright ideas floating around in astronomy, it can be hard to pick out the most interesting questions and the projects most likely to answer those questions.  So every 10 years, the nation’s astronomers come together to take a look at the big picture, and to look to the future.

The report starts by looking back at the dramatic progress made in the past few years. It’s hard to believe that a mere 20 years ago, we had no idea that dark energy existed, or whether planets existed around any star in the Galaxy other than our own.

But while we’ve climbed some impressive scientific mountains in the past twenty years, there are even more impressive peaks on the trail ahead. The Decadal Review considers “the most profound discovery in the coming decade may be the detection of potentially habitable Earth-like planets orbiting other stars”.  People have dreamed of that day ever since the times of the ancient Greeks.

This goal has two steps. First we need to find Earth-sized planets at just the right distance from their parent star, and then we will need to develop new technology to probe their atmospheres to search for oxygen, nitrogen, and the other elements we expect to find on a habitable, Earth-like, planet.

The second task is extraordinarily difficult. Earth-sized planets are small, far away, and hidden in the glare of their parent stars. A lot of development is still needed to build instruments to overcome those problems. Despite the challenges, the review places the challenge of imaging a habitable planet as a “Priority 1” goal, and Kepler as a key mission along the way.

In the meantime, Kepler is already hard at work answering the first question. Staring, unblinking, at 170,000 stars day after day, it will detect a minute change in brightness when a planet passes in front of the star it orbits. Before the decade is even half over, we hope to have found the first Earth-sized planet, and also to discover if such planets are commonplace, or rare.

The Decadal Review is mostly a dry, academic document with careful phrases and important caveats, but it rises to more poetic language when it attempts to describe the importance of this work. Hopefully, “one day, parents and children could gaze at the sky and know that a place somewhat like home exists around ‘THAT’ star”. That day  (or night!) is probably still more than a decade away, but it’s an awful lot closer than it was ten years ago. And so, here on the Kepler Team, we’re putting down our Decadal Reviews, and getting back to the work of bringing that day a little nearer.

For more information on the recently released 2010 Astronomy & Astrophysics Decadal Survey Report:

New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics

National Academies Press (full report available here)

6 thoughts on “Kepler's Impact on the Coming Decade”

  1. Sometimes to write what is?

    And the noises are music!

    Art is a path who opens science??

    God is under – over All.

    Nature oh you are programmed?

    As the plot

  2. Is kepler mission a waste of time?
    are you trying to find planets with the hope to have the most remote chance to catch an “eclipse”, if you think as the universe in 3D it have no sense to do that!!
    am I right or wrong?

  3. Good stuff and thanks for the link. Any idea what’s up with the managers monthly update, It’s been the most reliable release.

  4. Hi I am very please to learn of this NASA project and the potential
    benefits to mankind. I’m very interested in learning about a star
    in area that you are exploring. This star was renamed to my name
    back in 2002 and here are the coordinates:RA19h49m53.00 D41degrees
    26’55.47″. Is this star a red giant or more earth like in nature?
    Any information would be great. Thanks again, Tim Soukup

  5. Regarding the Kepler Mission and the August 26th press conference;
    Bill Broucki Principle Investigator for the Kepler mission continues to state that three years are required to observe and confirm three transits of an earth sized planet in the habitable zone. I respectfully disagree. First, with some luck, three (1 year) transits could be observed in a little more than two years. In the interim, the necessary ground based confirmations could be made. Second, NASA’s own chart shows that the habitable zone extends considerably inside what would be earth’s orbit around a sun like star. In addition, many of the stars being observed will be slightly smaller and cooler than the Sun. For sake of discussion, let us say that a planet would need to be at least as far or a bit farther from its host star than Venus is from the Sun to be within the inner band of the habitable zone. Venus completes an orbit of the Sun in approximately 225 days. So, in a perfect scenario, 450 days would be necessary to capture 3 transits of a planet just inside the habitable zone. That is roughly a year and three months, not three years. Kepler has been collecting scientific data since mid May of 2009 or (coincidentally) a year and three months. Clearly, it would take some astonishingly good luck to make such a find. However, Kepler should be closing in on an Earth sized planet in the habitable zone very soon.
    Here are some questions for the Kepler team:
    What is the longest orbital period for which three transits have been observed so far?
    What is the minimum orbital period necessary to fall within the habitable zone – given that some stars will be somewhat cooler than our Sun?
    How many, if any, repeat transits (two or more) have been observed that could fall within the habitable zone? Yes, these may require further confirmation, etc. – but the question stands.
    When will Kepler end its policy of sitting on data that has been collected at taxpayer expense?
    I am really becoming increasingly disappointed listening to press conferences on the Kepler mission. As articles in the NY Times have pointed out the Kepler team has been sitting on the most promising data and no one seems to mind. The press continues to ask softball questions (if they ask anything at all) and allows this to continue. The time has come for NASA to be more forthcoming. ‘Check back in a couple of years’ will not suffice any longer.

  6. Thanks for the post. I’m definitely going to follow this closely 🙂

    Any word on the NASA project? I saw something about it on his show a couple of months ago, then people magazine did a post on the same thing.

Comments are closed.