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Kepler opens a window on Mankind’s future…


** Welcome to Carnival of Space #100 readers! **

As you read this, far out in space, way out in the Deep Black, after its dust cover was ejected succesfully, the first glints of starlight have streamed down into the Kepler telescope, been collected by its CCDs and turned into images. Here’s the first image released by the Kepler team… click on it to bring up a full size version, as usual…


That, dear readers, is a truly historic image, and it’s not embroidering things too much to suggest that it will go on to become an iconic image. Why? Well, before we get on to that, let’s look at some stats first.

That central image ( the one split into rectangles; the squares top left and top right are magnified crops of areas of interest – see later), is a portrait of an area of sky roughly 100 degrees square. It is a 60 second exposure, taken on April 8th by the equivalent of a 95 Megapixel camera. And it shows an estimated 14 MILLION stars.

Like the view? Get used to it, because during Kepler’s 4 year (minimum) mission it’s not going to change. Kepler is going to stare and stare and stare at this area of sky relentlessly, monitoring 100,000 of those 14 million stars for changes in brightness that would indicate they are being orbited by Earth-like planets. The great hope for Kepler is that it will detect Earth-like planets in Earth-like orbits, i.e. in the zones around their stars where conditions would be “Earth-like”, i.e. warm and stable enough for liquid water and, possibly, life.

Which is why that image is so iconic. This image is the first footstep on en epic, heroic, scientific quest, probably the Holy Grail of all astronomy – the search for Other Earths Out There.  There are roughly (who’s gonna argue?!) 14 million stars in Kepler’s field of view, and 100,000 of those 14 million have been selected as candidates for close observation. Kepler is such a high tech piece of kit, is so sensitive, and its team are so dedicated and brilliant, that the lokelyhood of all those 100,000 candidate stars being duds is ridiculously small… which means that there’s a good chance, a very good chance, an excellent chance, that the first Earth-like world to be discovered by Mankind is right there, on that image, a mote of data lost in the glare of one of those tiny, pinprick points of light. One of those peppercorn stars is destined to be imomortalised as the parent star of “New Earth”, “Earth 2”, “Nova Terra,” or “Terra Nova” or whatever it ends up being called.

Doesn’t that just make you shiver?

Look at that image again. While some are clearly brighter than others, every single one of those  14 million pricks of light is a star… a distant sun… a huge, almost unimaginably powerful nuclear furnace that shines with the energy of raging atomic reactions. Many will be orbited by planets, the statistics make that a simple, undeniable fact. Many of those planets will probably be of the ridiculous “hot jupiter” type I am so unexcited by.

( Actually, there’s one of those on there already: the top left box highlights the position of TrES2, an extra-solar “hot jupiter” planet, discovered in 2006, orbiting the 750 LY distant star GSC 03549-02811. It’s “year” is just 2.5 days long, which I have trouble with, but that’s just me. For the record, the other box, top right, shows the position and a close-up view of a star cluster, NGC 6791, which is 13,000 light years away…)

Ah, but if even just a handful of them are orbited by planets as small as Earth, and if only a few of that handful of worlds are the right distance from their star to have liquid water… rivers, streams and seas… then when we look at that image we are looking at the destinations of the first interstellar probes – and beyond them, the first manned starships, whichever century they are built in. 

And talking of starships, the timing of this picture’s release is very fortuitois – or clever – because it ties in with the release of the new STAR TREK movie, which you’ll know (unless you”ve been living in a cave for the past three years!) is “Lost” producer JJ Abrams’ re-boot of the mega-successful franchise which takes the story right back to its roots, to the days when Kirk and Spock and the rest of the gang were all just wet behind the ears cadets at Starfleet Academy…


What’s the connection? Well, it might be just a personal thing, my own private take on what Kepler is all about, but, as I’ve suggested here before, Kepler is the USS Enterprise of our generation. If we can’t build an Enterprise or a starship for real… yet… then Kepler is the next best thing, because, like the beautiful, sleek ship of Kirk, Spock and Bones, Kepler’s mission is to “Seek out strange new worlds”. Okay, so Kepler can’t actually fly to these worlds at warp speed, with a migraine-inducing kaleidescope whirl of colour, but it can see – or at least detect – them from a distance.

Actually, we don’t want Kepler to find “strange” new worlds, do we? We want it to find familiar-looking worlds, worlds that remind us of home, worlds that are less like the bizarre, Salvador Dali versions of Jupiter found so far – those great, bloated puffballs of gas that are tortured by the gravity and heat of their ridiculously-close parent stars – and more like our own. We want Kepler to find planets the same size as Earth, in the same orbit around their star as Earth is around the Sun…

But essentially, I suggest, the good ships Enterprise and Kepler are related, in that their primary mission is to search the stars for new worlds, and in so doing expand our horizons and help us to understand and appreciate our place in this epic, beautiful, terrifying, awe-inspiring and humbling universe we live in.

But there’s one big difference, and it’s this: the Enterprise’s bridge has always been pretty much strictly off limits to all but a handful of its crew. Apart from the odd – usually annoying – passenger, and a few lovely, long-legged, mini-skirted, beehive hairdo ensigns who nipped in for a moment to hand Kirk a clipboard to scribble his name on, the Enterprise bridge has always been a high-tech officer’s club with very limited access for plebs like us…

But Kepler’s bridge is different. Its’ bridge – its website, where its pictures and results will be posted during its 4 year mission – is open to all, everyone’s welcome to walk through the hissing doors and gaze at the big screen. There aren’t just a dozen chairs there, there are millions of them – for us, all of us spaceflight enthusiasts, armchair astronomers, space geeks and dreamers…


We can be a part of this great adventure – in fact, the Kepler team have already shown us that they WANT us to be a part of it, by giving so many interviews and writing for so many blogs, like my good friend Rui’s “Beyond The Cradle”.

So, even though I’m the first to admit that it is perhaps, at first glance, rather less than impressive visually, that Kepler “First Light” image is historic, and iconic. It’s up there, I think – though I know some will disagree! – with the Hubble’s “Pillars of Creation” and “Deep Field” images; it’s up there with the Apollo “Earthrise” photo, the portrait of Aldrin standing on the Moon, and as important as the first surface photos of Mars taken by Viking. That image is important. It is, literally, a window, through which we can see – and almost reach out and touch – the future. The far future, admittedly, but a very real future nonetheless.

And if you don’t find that exciting, and thrilling, and awe-inspiring, then I don’t know what would move you.

So, Kepler has tasted starlight for the first time, and is now gathering its first data. It’s no exaggeration to say that the future literally begins here, because somewhere, on that image, in one of those rectangles, is a star that is destined to go down in the history of Mankind as the sun that shines in the sky of the first Earth-like world ever found. One day people will fly to that sun, and land on that world, and when they do they will carry with them copies of that very image, and marvel at how far they’ve come.