Science Team Spotlight

Pavel Machalek, Ph.D. 

Data scientist, Kepler Mission 
A Day In The Life 
PPavel Machalekavel Machalek is a data scientist for the Kepler Mission. Prior to joining the team, he obtained his own funding to work on the Spitzer Space Telescope using infrared photometry to investigate Hot Jupiters, studying their temperature and structure. For Kepler, he is currently working on light curve settings for the photometer, detecting high precision photometry of Hot Jupiters as they travel behind their star. A good portion of Pavel’s day is spent troubleshooting issues, searching out possible defects in Kepler’s photometry. This work contributes to the day-to-day operation of the satellite. He and other data scientists must ensure that the data products streaming from the satellite are still valid on a bi-weekly, monthly and quarterly cycle in an iterative process to ensure that the photometer’s data runs smoothly. When necessary, he works closely with the Science Operations Center (SOC) to improve the software code and resolve issues. Pavel also helps produce documentation for both the pipeline and the public data release notes and is beginning to collaborate with the team on the Kepler scientific papers. 
Meaning of the Mission 
“The number one goal is to find a habitable planet, a second Earth; this mission doesn’t have the capability to discover life on an Earth-like planet, just the capability to discover a planet that lies in the habitable zone. This mission will also discover how frequently these rocky planets occur. I believe the idea of denouncing the possibility of a unique single Earth is an atheistic crusade; it is a way to fight back against religious dogmatism. It would be interesting to find out whether our Earth is the only one in the Universe or whether there are many others. In particular, it would be fascinating to contrast age-old and firmly held theological beliefs regarding the uniqueness of the Earth and our place in the Universe to the tantalizing possibility that there could be dozens, hundreds or even thousands of other worlds similar to our own.” 
To read Pavel’s biography, click here
By Kepler blog contributor, Marlowe Primack.

Guest Observer Program Spotlight

Martin Still, Ph.D.  

Director, Kepler Mission Guest Observer Program

Kepler’s primary scientific goal is to detect terrestrial planets in the habitable zone and the frequency in which they occur, however, the data the photometer is providing the scientific community reaches far beyond the search for exoplanets.  In order to get a sense of Kepler’s depth I sat down with Martin Still, Director of the Guest Observer Program and newly appointed Deputy Science Office Director.

A Day in the Life 
What stands out to Martin more than any job he has had previous to this is that no one day is exactly alike. “No matter what you have planned for your day you don’t always get it done because there’s a new issue to resolve as soon as you arrive at work, this has to do with working on a new mission. The mission is unique and novel so operational experience is being learned on the fly rather than inherited from past projects. Every day is filled with learning how to do new things and unlearning how to do old things. The overarching feeling as the weeks and months go by is that we are making grand waves. I have enjoyed watching the project evolve; it has grown considerably. When I started a year ago, the startup job within a small team was much more hands on; at this point, with new recruits onboard I’m able to spend more time scoping and directing our efforts. I’m now able to take a step back, draw breath and lean on the support of both the existing team members and a lot of new people who have joined the mission. They have come in with research experience whether it’s exoplanet or timing related astrophysics, these new team members are really good at what they do. I’m there to scope out their work, make sure that their path ahead is clear and that they have all of the resources that they need. Somewhere between one half to three quarters of my day is spent in a management or operations meeting of one description or another. The rest of the day is spent making sure everyone is happy and they can get on with their work, driving towards our mission goals.”

GO Program Overview 
The Guest Observer Program  can be seen as a facilitator with a two-way door. In order to be successful we have to be a clearinghouse for much of the mission’s operational information. If you are an astrophysicist working at a university or an institution anywhere in the world and you want to be able to do science with Kepler it takes enormous understanding of the capabilities of the mission. You have to know its strengths and limitations; when you’re looking at Kepler data you need to be able to recognize what is astrophysical signal and discriminate it from instrumental artifact. Anyone who chooses to participate needs to collaborate with the Guest Observer Office so they understand as much of the technical information as possible and each participant knows what they can get out of the mission. The Guest Observers reach out and ask for help in understanding a piece of information out of that data. The program’s success is judged by the amount of scientific papers that are being produced, the number of universities working on Kepler data and the number of scientists aware of the mission and what it can do.” 

GO Proposal Process
“Guest observing is based around peer reviewed science proposals. In order to write a successful proposal you have to be an expert in your field.  Amateur astronomers are not excluded from the program at all, however, the best advice they can get is to collaborate with a professional astronomer since they are in the business of writing competitive scientific proposals. The panels that decide what programs get followed and what targets get observed look for any reason to throw a proposal out because there are so many good ones to choose from—it’s very much survival of the fittest. If Kepler doesn’t observe the most competitive and the most exciting science it will struggle in the future. Each proposal has to be more compelling than the next.  If one wants to become a Guest Observer you would submit a proposal with a very well-defined scientific goal and propose to answer a specific scientific question. The most compelling questions are the ones that will be chosen. When it’s time to choose among the proposals, NASA headquarters and the Guest Observer office collaborate to lobby the scientific community to provide independent scientific advisors. They discuss each proposal on merit in a closed room full of cookies and coffee. Each person has an equal vote; seven or eight experts make the decision. These experts come from all over the country and even the world.  In order to keep the process fair and unbiased the panel changes every year. It’s made up of a mix of senior experts and new young post-docs with a huge spectrum of scientific interests and ideas. The goal is to have the best mix of professional astronomers that can be found.”  

Exciting Discovery!
A paper that appeared in the press recently is a discovery made by Kevin Apps, a 25 year old undergraduate from the UK who found a new brown dwarf object by mining Kepler’s public data. Martin explains, “A brown dwarf is somewhere between a gaseous planet and a star. It’s a cold star, just a few thousand Kelvin in temperature. This brown dwarf is only the fifth transiting brown dwarf known to exist. Not only that, its transit shape has been fit with a model and its mass measured by ground-based spectroscopy. Because of the photometric accuracy of Kepler, the measured radius of this brown dwarf is many times more accurate than any of the other four discovered. This discovery is wonderful for Kepler and for the amateur astronomer. It shows that there is potentially a problem in the theory of brown dwarf atmospheres. The observation does not fit current theories of brown dwarf size, being too large for an object of its perceived age. Kevin called on prolific professional planet-hunters to put this discovery into a paper.” In Martin’s view this is one of the most exciting papers that has come out of the Kepler community outside of the Science Team and exoplanet world. “This is what I love to see and why the Guest Observer program is so important. Kepler’s endeavors cannot be performed by the Science Team alone, there’s just too much work to be done.”

Personal Science
Martin did his Ph.D. in the field of cataclysmic variable stars. “These things are wonderfully dynamic in terms of the way they changed rapidly over time. They are binary stars orbiting very close to each other on a few-hour time scale, flashing past each other, they’re so close that one of the stars is actually grabbing material from its neighbor and you get this bridge of gas between the two. This gas is falling onto what is called the accretor, which is a white dwarf star whose surface undergoes regular ‘cataclysmic’ explosions. These were fantastically sexy objects to work on back in the 70’s and 80’s with great relevance to the formation of planets, stars and black holes, but as time went by, accretion disk theory overtook the observational capabilities of ground-based and space-based telescopes; it overshot it dramatically. The only way that many people, myself included, believed that we were going to catch up is to have a 100-meter telescope on the ground—a super telescope, equipment that will not be available for at least another decade. When I joined the Kepler team, this mission’s ability to open a unique and valuable new window on these objects was immediately apparent. The first thing I did was to ask the target schedulers to put apertures over the few cataclysmic variables that are in Kepler’s field of view. These things are quite ubiquitous, there are thousands of them that we know of in the galaxy but most of them are quite faint including the ones in Kepler’s FOV. There were none that stood out, no fantastically brilliant ones that were famous and that people always worked on over previous decades. They had barely been looked at. However, when the data came through it was amazing, these data have enormous value. I was back to being a cataclysmic variable fan. Kepler is doing something unique that no other telescope can do, it’s sparking enthusiasm in this field and a body of critical work.”

Martin Still, Director of Kepler's Guest Observer Program
Emotional Response
The data that Kepler is providing has actually brought tears to the eyes of scientist. The first time Martin saw a light curve of one of these cataclysmic variable discs he admits that he “got a bit misty; Kepler evokes an emotional response in many people. The final product of the Kepler observations of cataclysmic variables could be putting a value on a particular number that is extremely important across the whole of astrophysics and that’s how ‘sticky’ what we call an accretion disk is. The reason why this is so important is that almost everything in the universe formed out of an accretion disk. Stars formed, planetary systems around stars formed from within these disks. These disks also surround the massive black holes around active galactic nuclei.  Kepler is observing accretion disks with a combined photometric precision and time sampling that nobody has ever been able to do before. While it’s not producing scientific quantities that haven’t been estimated before, it is improving the accuracy of what we know about these accretion disk properties by an order of magnitude, which is a big step forward.”

Kepler’s Contribution to Stellar Activity
“One of the things that Kepler does really well, not necessarily because of its photometric precision but because of its ability to stay on the same piece of sky observing the same stars, is that it’s producing an enormous legacy catalog of spotty stars; just like our Sun has sunspots that come and go on an eleven-year cycle. Sometimes the Sun is very spotty around the equator; it has a lot of dark patches, which are related to the magnetic activity within the Sun being generated by convective motions below the surface. Many other cool low-mass stars for which the Sun is included have a similar mechanism going on across their surface layers. Kepler can actually see star spots on distant stars developing and going away. You can use the spots on the star’s surface to measure the rotation speed of the star, which is very important parameter in the life of a star. Young stars rotate very rapidly; they formed out of a cold cloud and they spin very fast when they are young. As they mature and get older they slow down and become more sedate. As they become more sedate the number of spots gets smaller. What Kepler gives us is a wonderfully broad look at the evolutionary state of a star. What will be truly amazing is if Kepler continues its mission beyond the primary years through 2012. If it gets another two or three years, just a little bit longer, then you approach the time scales of the magnetic activity cycles. The Sun is eleven years; many stars are less than 5 years. This kind of opportunity to observe these stars has never been provided before, being able to take 30-minute cycle samplings of highly precise photometry of one star or thousands of stars for five or six straight years would be unprecedented. We will be able to see the activity cycles of thousand and thousands of stars, which will be awesome.” 

The Depth of Kepler
“We can only infer the structure and property of a star from what we see on the surface. This requires both observation and theoretical modeling to record what the surface of the star looks like. In that process there’s always redundancy. Kepler has the ability and the accuracy to record in great detail and precision the ways and modes of surface pulsation across many stars. Nothing else on or off the planet can do it with anywhere near the same degree of fidelity. These pulsations are basically driven by areas of instability, storms on or close to the surface, on the surface or even deep down in the core of the star. When you see these pulsations it’s a direct measure of things that are going on either deep in the interior or close to the surface of the star. There are phenomena you wouldn’t be able to detect on the surface of the star any other way, other than Kepler. It’s the only instrument that can do this work that precisely for that duration of time. This isn’t a new field of study.  People have been doing this work from the ground and from space for decades.  However, Kepler has blown the field wide open! It is still model dependent, you have to provide the theory to explain the observation and it’s the theory that tells you about the structure of a star. However, because the observations are that much more precise, the theory has to be that much more precise. Before Kepler there may have been five theories to explain what you were seeing, perhaps now there are only one or two. And of course that’s not to say the theory is correct. In science your theory only stands until proven incorrect. The other thing that Kepler is going to do over the years is to build a legacy database and those theories, every day, week, month and year still have to explain what you are looking at and if they can’t, they’re wrong. Kepler is driving this field of science and is teaching us more about the interior of stars. It’s like a rapid injection of understanding; things that might take decades to understand without Kepler will be learned on a much shorter time scale.” 
Meaning of the Mission
I was curious to know what it would mean to Martin if Kepler were to find an “Earth-like” planet. “I fully appreciate that my personal views are heretical, but that’s why I was asked to run the Guest Observer Office, I don’t see exoplanets as the richest area of science that Kepler is pursuing.  While time may prove me wrong, I feel that the habitable zone exoplanets that Kepler is searching for are almost certainly there.  Their discovery is inevitable within the next few years either by Kepler or another project. For me, the beauty of Kepler is the other science that it’s doing.  It’s re-exciting areas of astrophysics that have been quiet over the last 20 years, and promoting those areas which have been noisy but is contributing to them in new, significant ways, providing that extra step. If we are being honest and truthful with ourselves, the exoplanet mission provides enormous interest for the general public. However, in terms of NASA’s mission to understand the origin and structure of our universe, Kepler’s other activities provide a legacy which history may well regard to be of equal scientific importance.”  Martin loves working with the Kepler team, “It’s a fantastic environment to work in, who wouldn’t be excited to work on this mission.”  To read more about Martin’s educational background and prior work experience, click here.  

By Kepler blog contributor, Marlowe Primack

Science Team Spotlight

Jeffrey Van Cleve, Ph.D.

Photometer Characterization Scientist for the Kepler Mission 

A Day in the Life

Jeffrey Van Cleve spends much of his time looking at data that Kepler is about to release to MAST, the Multimission Archive at the Space Telescope Science Institute. MAST supports a variety of astronomical data archives, with a primary focus on scientifically related data sets in the optical, ultraviolet, and near-infrared parts of the spectrum.  Jeff and other members of the Kepler Data Analysis Working Group (DAWG) participate in this data review in order to verify that the Kepler Science Processing Pipeline performs as expected in most cases, and to understand the exceptions.  A different part of his day might be spent working on an important and interesting linear algebra puzzle to improve the Pipeline. This is one of Jeffrey’s favorite aspects of his work.  

Another of Jeffrey’s tasks is working on file formats and coordinate system conventions for the MAST archive. He feels a “sense of mission that Kepler leave behind a legacy that people can use long after the mission is over to get some great science done. For example, even if almost every star system has a planet like the earth, more than 95% of Kepler’s targets will not show planets for geometrical reasons — a huge treasure trove of precise stellar light curves for astrophysical investigation. ”He and 4 or 5 other people who call themselves the FITS Fanatics work on this and though it might seem kind of dull to have lengthy discussions about file formats and header keywords, it is part of leaving behind a legacy which will make it easy for people to use and publish the data. Part of this process is to make the headers self-explanatory, so that they describe in detail how the data was collected, calibrated, and formatted.

To help with this work, two new members have been hired in the science office to work on the release notes, eventually taking over editing them and generating tables and figures. The bonus? Jeffrey will have more time to work on linear algebra puzzles!

Kepler’s Achievement

What’s the most remarkable aspect of Kepler’s performance as an astronomical instrument? “It was the photometric precision of the CCD (visible light) sensors and the stability of the telescope pointing. It is amazing, when you think about it, that we can do 20 parts per million photometry, which requires both very stable CCDs and the ability to point the telescope to a millionth of a degree. It’s like looking at a light bulb 100 km (60 miles) away and being able to tell if a gnat is flying around it.”  

Meaning of the Mission

I was curious to know what Kepler’s existence means to Jeffrey on a personal level. “The prevalence of habitable worlds, as measured by Kepler, helps us assess the probability of finding intelligence in other star systems in our Galaxy. What I really appreciate about Kepler is that it allows me to contribute to an optimistic vision of the human future, one that includes colonizing planets in other star systems, or communicating with intelligent species that have survived the perils we currently face. Their existence alone would be a beacon of hope.”

To read Jeffrey Van Cleve’s full biography, click here

By Kepler blog contributor, Marlowe Primack

The Leitmotif of this Quarter's SWG Meeting: Validation versus Confirmation

The Kepler Science Team is scattered all over the US (excepting our two colleagues that help to run the Asteroseismology Consortium… from Denmark!).  Because of the distance, teleconferencing technology and platforms like webex for sharing computer desktops are as essential as the computers used to analyze the data.  But sometimes no technology can replace a room full of brainpower all attacking the same problem or contemplating the same question.  Maybe it’s just the smell of coffee and donuts or the inspiration derived from watching your colleague’s facial expressions.  The reality is that more gets done when we’re all in the same room.  So a few times each year, the team members pack up their laptops, hop on planes, and gather at the home institution of whomever happens to be taking his or her turn as the designated host.  This week, the team gathered at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.  We call these our “Science Working Group” meetings,  more lovingly referred to as SWG (“swig”) meetings.
The first order of business is to hear status reports.  How is the instrument performing?  What does the budget look like going forward (as if we don’t already know the answer to that question)? What can we expect from future software releases and when can we expect them?  We learned that the spacecraft has been free of safe mode events for almost 8 months now.  This is very good news.  With more than a year of data under our belt, we’ve learned a lot about the performance of the instrument.  We see seasonal changes in the focus, for example, that are driven by the amount of sunlight striking the backside of the spacecraft.  Varying sunlight levels induce slow temperature changes that affect the focal length of the photometer.  The amplitude of the variation and its effect on the data is well within our tolerances.  There is no indication that we’ll lose any more modules.  
The various working groups then share what they’ve accomplished over the last months.  We heard a report, for example, from the Eclipsing Binary Working Group.  Their goal is to produce an updated binary catalog using four quarters of data within the next 6 months.  We are counting on them to tell us, statistically, how many binary stars of a given period and apparent brightness we expect to see — a number which helps us to understand how often we expect to find astrophysical signals in our data that mimic planet transits.  We must understand this number well because most of our planet candidates will NOT be confirmed in the traditional sense — by way of high precision radial velocity  measurements that give us the mass of planet.  The catalog of planets that Kepler produces will be probabilistic in that every candidate will have an associated likelihood that the planet interpretation is correct.  This is new territory we’re charting.  It will lead to a new type of discourse on exoplanets in our galaxy.  Someone wondered out loud how the public will react to the announcement of a new world… “with a 95% likelihood”.  As he asks the question, I’m picturing the fine print on my wireless phone bill, and I’m hearing the guy at the end of the commercial who uninteligibly rattles off the litany of horrible side-effects that said medication can produce.  That’s not a path we want to take.  We’ll be asking the public to contemplate the Universe in a statistical sense, and it might get ugly.
The team devoted a good fraction of its time discussing how these “likelihoods” will be computed.  There are challenges ahead.  A small committee will meet with the folks over at the Ames supercomputing facility to talk about ways to speed up the number crunching that will be required.  We’ll likely have to revisit our priorities for utilizing highly competitive time on telescopes like Keck, WIYN, and the MMT.  These discussion were kicked off by a talk that Jack Lissauer gave.  The title of his talk became the leitmotif of the meeting: “Validation versus Confirmation”.  We realize that there are issues we are only beginning to fully appreciate.  This does not discourage us.  To the contrary, it motivates us.  This is the scientific method at its best.  As we each head back to our home institutions, we know what to do.
Natalie Batalha
Deputy Science Team Lead, San Jose State University
For two days, members of the Kepler Science Working Group filled the air in the meeting room with descriptions of their work on the pixels, the pipelines, and the planets.   What impressed me most was the long hours and technical expertise everyone was contributing toward the still-absurd goal of finding and characterizing the first Earth-sized planets.
The folks on the team are critically examining and improving the instruments, software, and performance of every aspect of the Kepler mission, down to truly invisible minutia.   Some members are devoted to studying and minimizing electronics noise in the 94 megapixel light detector.  Others are optimizing spacecraft stability.  Some are dedicated to improving Kepler’s phenomenal photometric performance, working toward Kepler’s amazing goal of 20 parts per million.   And some are observing Kepler “Objects of Interest” at ground-based telescopes by night, attending the meeting by day, and then going back to the telescope each night, all to verify and measure the planet candidates Kepler has identified.   Just archiving all the information about the hundreds of “Kepler Objects of Interest” is a monumental task.
In the end, I felt fortunate to be a part of the camaraderie.  The meeting room was filled with a warmth of shared purpose.  Everyone is working with mutual appreciation of the enormous challenges and personal sacrifices needed to get the job done. And everyone was swept along by the unprecedented hope of placing our home planet in its proper cosmic context.
Geoff Marcy
Co-Investigator, UC Berkeley

It was exciting to see how much work has been accomplished and overwhelming to see how much work still needs to be done.  It was surpising to see so many new faces – the number of collaborators and contributors continues to grow – which is a very good thing.  On Wednesday, the day after the science team meeting, there was an all-day session to discuss the follow-up observations of individual candidates.  The participants  rolled up their sleeves and worked extremely hard all day.  By mid-afternoon it looked like the group had been locked up for a week – there were computer cords, styrofoam cups, jackets and sweaters, half-eaten doughnuts, empty soft-drink cans, and miscellaneous debris strewn everywhere, as people had not even left to get lunch.  The single-mindedness, dedication, and teamwork demonstrated by the scientists as they struggled to interpret the myriad observations on a plethora of candidate planets was a joy to behold.

Michael Haas
Science Office Director, NASA Ames Research Center


As a member of the Follow-up Observing Team, my days(and nights) are focused on collecting astronomical data that contributes to our understanding of the potential planets that Kepler finds. Since my work is focused on extending what Kepler finds, I forget that dozens of people are working on every detail of the Kepler project. Nearly all of the people at the SWG meeting need to complete their work, before I can do my own. From satellite communication, to public outreach, to nitty gritty pixel-level analysis, the amount of work that goes into Kepler is absolutely amazing.
Watching all the entire Kepler picture be painted was remarkable.
Howard Isaacson
Kepler Collaborator, UC Berkeley

Kepler Memorabilia – Original Kepler Star Plate

And now, for a bit of Kepler history…

Over the holidays at the end of 1992, Lloyd Robinson, the CCD guru at UCO Lick in those days, had just retired and offered to set up a CCD system in the clean room in Santa Cruz to see what could be learned.  This star plate was a key component in that original setup.  
Original Kepler Star Plate

Original Kepler Star Plate
This star plate is an important Kepler relic. It was used in the first laboratory experiments to determine whether CCDs could produce very precise differential photometry.
When Jon Jenkins (Co-Investigator and Analysis Lead for Kepler) first set eyes on this plate in June, 2010, he recognized it immediately, even though he had never seen it before. This was because one of his first tasks for the mission was the analysis of an untold number of images from a variety of tests using this plate. These tests were invaluable in discovering all sorts of ways for test setups to go wrong, from sagging light bulb filaments to liquid nitrogen fills. Based on what was learned, more sophisticated laboratory test systems were developed using a variety of other star plates. This painstaking laboratory work culminated in the very successful Kepler Test Demonstration (KTD), which was instrumental in selling the Kepler Mission to NASA.

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)

Kepler Sends Happy Birthday Wishes

Kepler team members are sending in their well-wishes today, August 5, 2010, in honor of Neil Armstrong’s 80th birthday.  All comments have been added to a poster (available here) that the team is sending to him. Some are reproduced below.  Please join us in wishing Neil a…

                   Happy 80th Birthday!

“Neil — with warm wishes for a Happy Birthday — thank you for your contribution to space exploration.”

                – Roger Hunter

                   Kepler Project Manager, on behalf of the Kepler Team

“When I look at the data Kepler sends down, I realize that in these bytes is something new — something no human has ever seen before. And I pause to think of those before me who also looked at something new and took risks and made sacrifices so that ALL of humanity would see too. Through your eyes, we saw something extraordinary that changed our perspective forever, and I thank you for that. Happy 80th Birthday!”

                – Natalie Batalha

                  Deputy Science Team Director

“Apollo 11 was the inspiration for an untold number of people to pursue careers in engineering & the sciences. Back in the tumultuous 1960’s, this country emotionally needed the success you delivered. And we know you would be the first to say that you were just the visible part of the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people, but your coolness under stress during the mission and your grace and dignity since returning from the moon are all an inspiration. I am living the dream of being a NASA engineer because of you and and the people who worked around you back then. So beyond “Happy Birthday”, I want to say “Thank You”. “

                – Jon Cowart

                  NASA KSC & friend of Kepler

“Happy 80th Birthday Neil!  As we search for planets and their moons orbiting distant stars, I am often captured by the thought that the Universe must be filled with curious, awe-struck and awe-inspiring pioneers.  Thank you for being one of ours.”

                – Jessie Christiansen

                  Data Scientist

“I remember fondly listening to the conversation as you searched for a spot to land the LEM and watching your famous “small step”.  Your courage and actions were one of the reasons I chose a career in planetary sciences.  Happy 80th birthday!”

       – Jack Lissauer


Planets large and small: the Kepler planetary candidates in my TED Talk

Dimitar Sasselov, Co-Investigator, Kepler Science Team, Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Two weeks ago I gave a talk at TED Global 2010 which was very well received, but caused confusion. I referred to past results from the NASA Kepler mission. Indeed, Kepler has not discovered Earth-like planets in habitable zones. We have not found Earth-size planets; at this time we have found only planet candidates – 706 of them as of June 15, 2010, based on only 43 days of data with 306 released and discussed in a paper by the Kepler team. Planet candidates are just that: “candidates”. A sizable fraction will turn out not to be planets, and we do not know what that fraction is yet.

So that was my challenge – Kepler measures planet sizes, while I wanted to talk about geochemistry. In just 18 minutes. So, the expected number of planets, size and Earth-like chemistry got confused, and created a misunderstanding.

The family of our Solar System planets seems simple when sorted by size: half of the planets are large (giants) and half of the planets are small (terrestrial). The giants contain a lot of light gases (hydrogen and helium) in their bulk composition while the terrestrial ones contain mostly heavier elements. Too much hydrogen and helium dilute the surface chemistry, while heavy elements and solid surfaces tend to concentrate it.  There is one planet in our Solar System where the chemistry has evolved to biochemistry and to a biosphere. In the search for life beyond Earth, the smaller planets are thus the favorite places to look.

The Kepler mission is designed to discover Earth-size planets by detecting and measuring their transits. The Kepler team collects additional information as it works to confirm a planet discovery, but one essential physical parameter Kepler provides is SIZE, the planetary radius. However, is “Earth-size” the same as “Earth-like”? And vice versa?

Kepler is capable of finding Earth-size planets in orbits of moderate temperatures. But most people consider the term “Earth-like” to mean that the planet has an atmosphere, liquid water on its surface, and a temperature conducive to life. In other words, “Earth-like” is often used to mean ‘habitable’. Therefore, Earth-size and Earth-like are certainly not the same. Take the example of Venus, an Earth-size planet whose surface will melt lead.

The term “Earth-like” planet creates confusion. To some scientists like me, who model planet interiors, the term “Earth-like” is a simple short-hand for a bulk composition like Earth’s. It emphasizes the broad difference between gas giants and terrestrial planets, as seen in our Solar System. However, I understand that this is not how it was interpreted by the majority of the media coverage. My definition allows for a whole range of planet sizes to be “Earth-like” planets. Thus, the question – what size planets might be “Earth-like”?, is more interesting. According to my definition, it involves the so-called “super-Earths” – planets larger in size and mass than the Earth, yet smaller than the giant planets. Many super-Earths are expected to have the same properties and potential for life as habitable Earth-size planets.

Kepler planetary candidates, like the 306 released this past June 15th, have estimated orbits and sizes. Sorted by apparent size, the majority of the candidates are found to be Neptune-size and smaller. This is the good news. As of today none of the candidates smaller than 2 Earth radii is in the habitable zone; their orbits are too small, which is why it was easier to spot them after just 43 days. Habitable planets will take a lot more time, as Kepler needs to observe more than one transit.

The first data release is an encouraging first step along the road to Kepler’s ultimate goals, specifically, to determine the frequency of Earth-size planets in and near the habitable zone. However, these are candidates, not systems that have been verified sufficiently to be considered as planets. The distribution of planet sizes may also change. It will take more years of hard work to get to our goal, but we can do it.

The TED Global conference is about ideas worth spreading to a general audience. In my TED talk I decided to discuss the idea that science seems to be at the threshold of a new revolution – of synthetic biology. Ironically, this is happening at the completion of the previous, Copernican, revolution. My point was that the two events are related, and that, tantalizingly, progress in synthetic biology may be accelerated by input from planetary science. This is the core of the project I lead and we call the Origins of Life Initiative (not associated with the Kepler Mission).

The Origins of Life Initiative makes connections between geochemistry and biochemistry. The Kepler mission helps our project by establishing feasibility: if solid planets are common, then we have a shot at trying our lab experiments. This works as long as the planets have geochemical cycles that determine their atmospheric signatures.  Hence, planets somewhat larger than Earth are more favorable (Sasselov & Valencia, Sci. American, Aug 2010). The Drake equation gives us an estimate of about 100 million such planets with habitable potential in the Milky Way galaxy. Kepler has not yet weighed in on this yet, but holds the potential to do so in the future.

Related links:

TEDGlobal Lecture
Dimitar Sasselov
: “On Completing the Copernican Revolution

Characteristics of Kepler Planetary Candidates Based on the First Data Set: The Majority are Found to be Neptune-Size and Smaller
Borucki, W. and the Kepler Team, submitted to Astrophysical Journal

Claims of 100 Earth-Like Planets Not True
by Clara Moskowitz @

Cosmic Log on
Millions of Earths? Talk causes a stir
by Alan Boyle 

Spacecraft Update & Are Kepler Seasons Similar to American Idol's?

Well, folks, it’s been a long time since I’ve written, and there’s not been a lot of Kepler news in the news, as it were.  And I know people are wondering, “What’s going on?  Are we finding planets or what?”
So in a minute, I’ll tell you what’s going on.  But before I do, let me remind you where things stood when I last put out a notice.
We had been seeing ongoing problems with the star trackers that sometimes sent us to our Safe Mode.  And we had seen one of our 21 detector modules go dark on us.
We’ve done a lot of work on both these problems, and the spacecraft has been operating really nicely for four months now.  We still don’t know what is going on with the star trackers, but we’ve put in several layers of mitigation so even if they do act up a bit, we should be able to sail through it without interrupting science data collection.  For the detector that failed, we’ve narrowed down the failure to a particular circuit that seems likely to have blown a fuse onboard.  There’s nothing we can do to fix it, but the good news is that whatever caused the fuse to blow, we’ve been able to show that it was a very rare phenomenon, so we aren’t likely to see a bunch of detectors fail.
We uploaded a software patch to the vehicle and rebooted the flight processor and that went really well.  Our ground processing software is getting better.  It now searches for planets in the data automatically, and runs a variety of tests on what it finds, tossing out most of the false positives that masquerade as planets.  We’re now working on the last really big piece of the data processing puzzle, writing the software that will stitch together all our flight data and let us look for the long-period planets that will be most likely to support life.  Right now, the software runs on three months of data at a time.  Every three months we have to rotate the spacecraft to keep the solar panels aimed at the sun, and when we do, all our data sort of “hiccups” as all the stars are moved to different parts of the detectors.  Imagine it this way…
You set up a camera on a tripod and take 100 pictures of a bowl of fruit.  Then you turn the camera 90 degrees and take another 100 pictures.  Now, if you flip through the pictures rapidly, the first 100 will look nearly identical, and unless a fly landed on your fruit, it’ll probably put you to sleep.  Then all of a sudden everything will change a bit.  It’s the same bowl, same fruit, but it’s rotated 90 degrees and suddenly you’re awake and paying attention again.  But as you flip through the last 100 pictures, it goes back to being dull again.  No matter how careful you are with the camera alignment, and even if you rotate all the last 100 pictures so they are right side up, there will be that little glitch when you go from the first hundred to the second hundred.  And that little jump wreaks havoc on our software.  We’ve always known we would have to fix this, but it’s taken us a while to get there.  So there’s still more work to do before Kepler reaches it’s full potential.
But what has been going on in the mean time?  Well, this is where I’m going to try and make an analogy to American Idol.
Kepler is like a cosmic-scale American Idol, with 156,000 stars vying to be the winner, and show us their planets.
Like Idol, the early tryouts are a real trial, with a whole lot of bad candidates.  They might be interesting, entertaining, but not what we are looking for.  During these tryouts, we identify the most promising candidates, and hand out those coveted “tickets to Hollywood”.  In Kepler‘s world, these lucky contestants get a KOI number.  They become a “Kepler Object of Interest”.  It doesn’t mean they will win it all.  In fact, most of them will be eliminated by our “panel” before they ever get to face the “vote”.
In January, we announced 5 new planets.  Five new Idols from the first 10 days of data that we gathered.  You didn’t see the details of the Hollywood portion of that competition, only the results.
So yesterday, on June 15, we were obligated to make public, nearly all the data we collected from our first Quarter of operation. That first Quarter was a short one, because we didn’t start operations until most of the Quarter was gone, but still, it’s a big step beyond that first 10 days of data.  On June 15 we released the data for 43 days of operation, and the results of the “tryouts” from that period.  What will you see?  Another 5 planets?  Nope.  This time you’ll get a bit more insight into the Hollywood portion of the competition.  You’ll find that we issued something like 700 tickets to Hollywood!  And even if most of these are eventually sent home, there are still likely hundreds of winners, hundreds of planets within this group of contestants!  In fact, by the time we’re done with the competition, we’re likely to find that in the first 43 days of operation, Kepler has doubled the number of known Exoplanets!
Four hundred contestants will continue the competition within Kepler, and a new set of winners will be announced over the next six months.
Like American Idol, each new season takes a year to unfold.  But unlike American Idol, we start a new round every three months, and all our 156,000 contestants get to re-compete each Quarter.  All this really keeps our “Judges” busy.  But every year the winners are more and more talented, and eventually, we’ll end up with the real prize of the mission, Earth-size planets in the habitable zone that might sustain life!
So stay tuned for more news coming out every couple of months before another big announcement of Season 2 winners in January!

Charlie Sobeck, Deputy Project Manager

Kepler Website Wins Webby Award!

Have you visitedKepler’s new website? <> It wasredesigned and launched back in January. Someone noticed! 

Kepler: A Search for Habitable Planets was selected as an Official Honoree for the Science category in The 14th Annual Webby Awards.

What’s a “Webby Award?”

The Webby Awards is theInternet’s most respected symbol of success. Webby Honorees, Nominees andWinners truly represent the best of the Web. The 14th Annual Webby Awardsreceived nearly 10,000 entries from all 50 states and over 60 countriesworldwide.

The Webby Awards ispresented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, a650-person judging academy whose members include Internet co-inventor VintonCerf, R/GA’s Chief Bob Greenberg, “Simpson’s” creator Matt Groening,Arianna Huffington, and Harvey Weinstein.

Winners will beannounced on May 4th, 2010 and honored at a star-studded ceremony in New YorkCity on June 14th where they will have an opportunity to deliver one of theWebby’s famous five-word speeches with the world. Past Webby Award winners -and their speeches – include Al Gore (“Please don’t recount thisvote.”), Stephen Colbert (“Me. Me. Me. Me. Me.”), and MichelGondry (“Keyboards are full of germs.”) 

Photo of actual Webby Award

So now it’s time to turnthe spotlight on the talented folks who worked so hard to make it happen. Kudosto our website redesign team! Credit goes to Michael Greene for overseeing the project,to teams at JPL and Raytheon, including Joshua Rodriguez, Randal Jackson,Cornell Lewis, Joe Wieclawek, Maryia Davis and Ernest Koeberlein, Harman Smith,Randii Oliver, Erick Zwlaya ; and the Kepler EPO folks, Dave Koch, of NASAAmes, Edna DeVore, of SETI Institute and Alan Gould of Lawrence Hall ofScience, Berkeley.

Go Kepler!