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Kepler: The birth of Universe 2.0

So, after all the build-up and tension I missed the launch of Kepler. I just couldn’t get online. It was a bit disappointing – “disappointing” isn’t the word I used at the time, of course – not to see it live on NASA TV as I had been looking forward to, and I’m now gutted I missed out on the global Twitter party that was held before, during and after the launch, but never mind, these things happen, and the most, and only, important thing was that the Delta rocket did its job and Kepler launched safely, and didn’t either blow up on the pad or make it into space only to fall out of the sky before reaching orbit and splash down in the ocean, like the alien from CLOVERFIELD sploshing down into the sea off Manhattan.

Kepler is now safely in orbit, I believe, and after all its systems have been checked it will be ready to begin its mission, which is basically to find new planets out in space, more specifically planets the same size as Earth that might be in the right position to be habitable.

Sounds familiar? Hmm. It should do. Does this ring a bell?

“Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Yep, that’s right. NASA has become Starfleet (a couple of centuries early, admittedly), Kepler is its first real USS Enterprise, and this is the very beginning of its first mission.

Kind of. 🙂

(I’m not being entirely serious, of course, but that’s basically true, isn’t it? Kepler’s mission IS to seek out new worlds, just not “strange” ones. No, we want it to find FAMILIAR-looking and -behaving worlds, orlds that remind us of Home…

One thing that did strike me as I was reading all my Twittering friends’ anxious… then excited… then relieved posts the morning after Kepler’s launch was how there seems to be some deep desire within us to “wave off” departing ships.

troop_ship_farewell_000304-01

Think about it – are there many more romantic or emotional experiences than standing on the shore, or a harbour wall, and watching a ship leave port and set sail for a distant destination? It strikes a chord within us all, I think. Poems have been written about it, songs have been penned about it, and it features in many movies too. I remember vividly how a lump the size of Ayers Rock formed in my throat when I watched STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURES and saw those spacesuit-clad dock-workers waving farewell to the brilliantly-floodlit, newly-refitted USS Enterprise as it slid out of drydock… how I wished I was there with them… and it was very easy to imagine I actually was…

1701-dock

And, just as over the centuries crowds have gathered on jetties, beaches and harbour walls to wave off explorers like Columbus, Magellan and Shackleton, on Saturday morning (my time) countless thousands of people around the world gathered on the cyber-shore of the internet and watched Kepler’s launch live on NASA TV, and I’m sure many of them felt just as moved and emotional as the witnesses to history of decades and centuries gone by…

Although their designers, builders and scientists might suggest otherwise, it’s not often that a space mission truly and genuinely has the potential to change the way we see the universe and our place in it, but Kepler really does have that potential, because the absolute bottom line is that it will either find Other Earths or it won’t, and either outcome will have profound implications for our understanding of the cosmos and our significance to it. If Kepler finds even just a few “Alien Earths” out there amongst the star-frothed clouds of Cygnus and Lyra, that will confirm the assumption that our oewn Earth is not a fluke and that there are many more warm, wet, lush planets like it out there in the Deep Black. If, however, Kepler finds no planets like our own, if it just spots more and more of those ridiculous “hot Jupiters” and “Super Earths” then, well, it really could Just Be Us. Either outcome will shake the founadtions of our cosmic view. THIS is the mission the much-missed Carl Sagan imagined and dreamed of. This is the mission that might just turn his vision of a living universe into a reality.

Depending on what it finds, or doesn’t find, the Kepler mission will do nothing less than change the way we look at the night sky, and make us feel profoundly different when gazing up at it. Of course, over the past few years we’ve started to look at the sky differently because we now know that hundreds of the stars in it are circled by planets. I think it’s true to say that that revolution in astronomy has gone unnoticed by the general public, but for amateur and professional astronomers it has been a truly amazing thing. Just speaking personally here, I find it absolutely staggering and absolutely thrilling to now look up at a clear night sky and be able to pick out even one stars that has a planet – or even a whole family of planets – waltzing around it. Don’t you? The other night when I was out looking at and photographing the Moon (see earlier posts) I look up at the stars of Gemini, saw Pollux shining there, and was incredibly moved to think that we now know – KNOW! – it has at least one planet circling it. I’ve grown up with that star, it’s been my friend since I started learning the sky three decades ago. It’s been a constant in my life, like the Moon and Sun, Sirius and Polaris, Terry Wogan and Blue Peter. But now I see it differently. I’ve known for a long, long time that all stars are essentially “distant suns”, that every star twinkling above me on a clear night is basically an enormous hot ball of gases, and the only difference between them and the Sun is distance, and ever since discovering it in a book at junior school, recalling that one fundamental carved-in-stone fact has always, always made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  But now I look at Pollux – or one of the hundreds of other stars that are orbited by a planet or planets – – and I can now feel, somewhere in here, that it truly IS a “sun”, that if I flew there and went down to the surface of one of its worlds I would look up into its sky and see that star shining in it as a sun. That’s an incredible thing! That’s a paradigm shift in astronomy and our understanding of our place in the universe, surely?

Yet the vast majority of people I meet day to day are blissfully unaware that they now live in a universe populated by many solar systems, not just ours. On my way back from work at night I pass people heading to the off-licence or take-away, or walking their dog, or sneaking a cigarette in a shop doorway and I want to grab their shoulders, turn them to look at the sky and tell them “Look! Up there! Lots of those stars have planets! We can’t just say ‘the solar system’ anymore, we should be saying ‘OUR solar system!’… it really is that big a deal to me.

And that’s why I believe Kepler is so revolutionary. I grew up beneath a sky scattered and sewn and strewn with stars, airbrushed by the Milky Way and painted with nebulae, star clusters and galaxies. But the only planets in it were Earth’s sister worlds, visible as bright or not-so-bright points of light. The children of today are growing up beneath a sky that’s also strewn with stars, they can also see the Milky Way and the planets of Earth’s solar system, but THEIR sky is a sky dotted with other solar systems too. When I go to Irthington School up in Carlisle in a couple of weeks’ time to show them the night sky as part of their “Space Sleepover Night” I’ll be able to point towards Pollux and say “That star there has a planet going around it… how cool is that?” That was science fiction when I was growing up, when the only planets beyond Pluto were those visited by the crew of the Enterprise.

But at the moment, all the extra-solar planets Out There are bizarre or unusual objects, worlds nothing – nothing – like our own. As I write this the number of “exo-planets” found to date stands at 342, which is amazing, and a triumph of science, but not one of those worlds is even remotely like Earth, and as I’ve said before, being totally honest they almost don’t count as planets to me because their orbits are so weird, or their years are too short or they’re so enormous in size. I’m sorry, and no offence to the people who discovered them, but, as I said on my good friend Rui’s blog “Beyond The Cradle”, I want my planets:

‘to 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…. …worlds that 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.’

And now Kepler is in space we might be just a couple of years away from finding worlds that have all those things – and maybe even more.

Today we might be just a couple of years away from a truly magical night, when, after watching a NASA press conference announcing Kepler had indeed found its first extra-solar Earthlike planet, we will be able to go outside after sunset,  look up at the starry sky and know, for the very first time in all of human history, that yes, there is another world like our own precious Earth Out There. What a night that will be.

girl-sky

But thinking even further ahead, consider this. The babies being born today, as you read this, will grow up knowing that the night skyabove their heads is not just full of strange and wonderful and ridiculous and bizarre planets, but comfortingly familiar ones too. They might well look up into a starry sky and know that there are not just a few but hundreds of Earths Out There, imagine that…

baby-earths-small

And it all began with the launch of that Delta rocket that carried Kepler up into space.

The Universe is changing. Can you feel it?

You will.

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4 Responses

  1. Great post Stu, one of your best.

    What a time we live in.

  2. […] This is a teaser from a full article by Stuart Atkinson, who collaborates with BEYOND THE CRADLE but also spreads the word in his own blog, Cumbrian Sky, go and read it ALL! […]

  3. Indeed, this is an historic moment, but unfortunately not appreciated as it deserves to be

  4. Your words my friend…your words…they fill my chest with emotion.

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