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Staring up at a sky full of worlds…

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been fascinated by Mars ever since I was knee-high to R2D2. But I’ve also grown up looking up at the starry sky and wondering, on every clear night, if any of the distant suns so far above my head had planets going around them.

The first “exoplanet” discoveries were interesting, and a few were even exciting in their way, but personally I’ve always had a very, very hard time getting worked up at all about the huge, bloated balls of gas found spinning so quickly around their parent stars that they were almost ploughing through their atmospheres. I know that officially they’re planets, they meet the criteria – such as it is – for being given the title “planet”, but to me they’ve not been real planets at all, just self-important gas bags with ideas above their station. Freak objects, almost.

But more recently the exoplanet hunters have started to find worlds around distant stars that I can think of as planets. Small worlds, dense enough to be made of stone, not gas, and far enough away from their star to have a “year” longer than just a few days. One of these planet-hunters, NASA’s KEPLER telescope, has been in the news regularly as its team carefully and doggedly sift through the masses of data it is returning as it gazes hard at stars in a small part of the sky, watching out for any dips in those stars’ brightnesses which might betray the presence of a world, or worlds, orbiting around them.

You can see this part of the sky for yourself, tonight, if it’s clear where you live (no chance of me seeing it from here in Kendal; it’s blowing a gale outside right now, with gale force winds and driving rain. I’m sure a cow just flew past my window, like in “Twister”!). Just go outside after dark, look to the west, and you’ll see two bright stars, Deneb and Vega, shining in that direction, not too far above the horizon. Deneb is the brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus, The Swan, and Vega outshines every other star in its constellation of Lyre, The Swan. KEPLER is staring at the sky between those two stars. If you could superimpose KEPLE’R’s field of view, or “FOV”, on the sky it would look like this…

By the end of last week, just over 500 exoplanets had been found orbiting just over 400 stars. That in itself was an amazing thing, an AMAZING thing!! It meant that after years and years of wondering, I could trek up the hill to Kendal Castle, stand in the shadows of its ruined towers and walls after dark on a starry night, look up and know, for a fact, that there were planets waltzing elegently around many of the stars above me. KEPLER had found five planets in its grid-like field of view, so when I went up to the castle a couple of weeks ago, when I looked to the west and saw Deneb and Vega shining above the bright orange streetlights of the Auld Grey Town of Kendal, with the invisible picture frame of KEPLER’s FOV hanging between them, I knew that orbiting some of the tiny, peppercorn stars right there in front of my eyes were at least 5 planets… 5 worlds… 5 alien worlds

Just incredible.

Now, if that was all KEPLER ever found, if that was all any of the many planet-hunting teams around the world had ever found, it might have been a bit disappointing, statistically, but it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. WIth KEPLER’s FOV covering just 1/400th of the sky it would mean, extrapolating those figures, that maybe, possibly, perhaps, there were 2000 planets orbiting stars “out there” in just the area of space KEPLER is studying. That would have been 2000 more than I’d grown up with as a child.

Then came last week’s NASA press conference, and an exoplanet tsunami smashed into the complacent cosmic coast and swept the old world view away.

The news was startling: KEPLER had found a star with a system of six – six!! – different planets going around it! KEPLER had discovered a whole alien solar system in one of the squares of its search grid, 2000 light years away…

All the worlds around “Kepler 11” hug close to their parent star. All but one of them orbits closer to that star than Mercury does to our own Sun. And none of them would be anything remotely like our own Earth… but that wasn’t the point. KEPLER had only gone and discovered a whole, complete alien solar system, boosting, in one go, the number of planets it had discocvetred from 5 to 11!

I watched the news conference on my computer, via NASA TV, and when I heard that announcement I wanted to dash outside, run across the road to the park and find DEneb and Vega glittering in the west so I could let the light from Kepler 11 enter my own eye… but the rain smishing against the window told me that was wishful thinking, so I kept watching.

It’s a good thing I did,. or I would have missed the Really Big Announcement…

The KEPLER team announced, with obvious relish, that their telescope’s observations had yielded a total of 1,235 planetary “candidates” – i.e. they had detected 1,235 fluctuations in stars’ brightnesses that could be attributed to the presence of planets around a star. Gulp. Over a thousand possible planets…

… and that 68 of those candidates were approximately Earth-sized…

Wow…

… and that of those 68, five were in orbit around their parent star within its “habitable” or “Goldilocks zone”, the not too hot, not too cold region where conditions would be right for water to exist and, with it, maybe life too…

WOW…

That news took a while to sink in, not helped by the fact that the guy on the KEPLER team breaking the news had a very dry and    v   e   r   y      s   l   o   w  delivery style and frequently got his sords and terms a little mixed up.

But the numbers spoke for themselves… 1,235 possible planets observed in the KEPLER FOV *so far*… almost a hundred of them roughly the size of Earth… and almost half a dozen of those orbiting in the zone just perfect for an alien Goldilocks to break into the cottage of an innocent family of extraterrestrial bears, steal their porridge and crash out in their baby’s bed.

I was jotting down all the figures and statistics as the news conference was broadcast, and as I wrote them down a thought occurred to me… Some of the planetary candidates larger than Earth, Jupiter-sized or larger, orbited within their star’s habitable zones. So, although they almost certainly wouldn’t… couldn’t… have life of their own, maybe they would have moons orbiting them that were themselves Earth-like…? Sounds familiar?

AVATAR’s “Pandora” might not be just science fiction after all…

Inevitably the internet’s science websites, forums and blogs almost melted after the news conference as headline after headline screamed “Over a thousand planets found!”, “Alien Earths discovered!” The reality was and is  rather different. The KEPLER team were, as usual, very, very careful to stress that they were just talking about planetary CANDIDATES; the number of planets actually observed and confirmed by KEPLER is just 15, and not one of them, **not one** is anything even remotely like our own Earth. ( Some of the six newly-discovered worlds were likened to big balls of marshmallow with hard candies in the centre” by one of the KEPLER Team..! )

And this reality has led to more than a little criticism and cynicism aimed at KEPLER and its team. True, anything written about KEPLER findings will include more than a smattering of terms like “may”, “might”, “potential” and “Possibly”, because KEPLER is gathering data about POSSIBLE planets that might, or might not, turn out one day to be real planets, and that turns some people off, and makes others dismiss KEPLER’s mission as almost pseudo-science. It does nothing for them. I’ve even heard the mission described as “mundane”. But I think all these people are missing the truth behind Kepler, not seeing the Big Picture, as it were.

Here’s the bottom line, I think, cutting through all the hype, all the speculation and all the melodrama: thanks to Kepler, and the amazing science team behind it, we can all, after centuries of wondering and speculating and dreaming, go outside on the next clear night, look to the west and see Deneb standing there above the trees, with Vega gleaming to its right and know that in the unremarkable-looking little patch of sky between them there are at least, at least, 15 alien planets orbiting some of those spilled salt stars. Good grief, isn’t that enough?! What more do some people WANT?!?!?!?!?

Here’s the incredible thing about KEPLER, as I see it. Although we absolutely don’t know it for a fact, we know now, thanks to Kepler, that there’s a chance that many, many more of those stars “up there” might have worlds orbiting them too, including some perhaps the size of Earth, with some of those possibly orbiting within their sun’s habitable zone.

That means that our universe could be a whole lot more interesting than we previously thought – and a whole lot more crowded, too.

I know. Chancemightpossibly… Not exactly conclusive, is it? But it’s a start. If we don’t look we are guaranteed to find nothing. Kepler is looking, and seeing incredible things, with many more incredible things to come, I’m sure.

We’ve pondered this for centuries, as a species, and I think it’s a pretty safe bet that most of you reading this post, at some point in your lives, have, like me, looked up at the sky, from a lonely hilltop, or a quiet beach, or just from your own back gardens, and wondered if there were worlds whirling around any of those distant suns too. Now we know – there are. We know that one of those stars, even if it’s invisible to our naked eyes, has six worlds spinning around it. Six! Doesn’t that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? It should!

Still not convinced of KEPLER’s worth? Of the sheer awesomeness of its discoveries, and potential? Think of it this way. The “alien solar systems” we’ve all grown up with, on sci-fi shows like Star Trek, Babylon 5, Lost in Space, Dr Who, or on more factual programmes like Cosmos, Horizon, or whatever, have all been completely made up, invented, the products of great imaginations, the children of people with a passion for the amazing possibilities that exist Out There. Today we can actually study real alien solar systems, take images of planets waltzing around faraway stars. Before Kepler we were hesitantly dipping our toes in the water lapping lazily at the edge of the cosmic ocean. Kepler is going to bring the waters of that ocean roaring up the beach to us, over our feet and up to our knees, and will eventually pour planets on us like a summer storm.

Yes, these observations and results are quite speculative. I’ll say again, the Kepler team are very, VERY careful to use the term “candidates”. But whether the Kepler FOV turns out to contain the frothy surf of thousands of worlds suggested by the candidate data, or ‘just’ a few hundred worldsscattered here and there across its grid, or even just the fifteen we know about today, dropped onto it like beads fallen from a snapped necklace, that’s an incredible thing.

We should all rejoice in it! 

But bringing things back to a less frenzied place for a moment, it’s true to say – and I would never suggest otherwise – that we’re still a long way off finding the Holy Grail of exoplanetary astronomy – a truly Earth-like world, orbiting in the habitable zone of a distant star. For us to know an exoplanet is a genuine Earth #2 we’d need to find familiar terrestrial signatures in its atmosphere, maybe even get images of its surface and oceans: detecting an Earth-sized planet in the right place simply won’t cut it. We’ll need evidence of actual life on the surface of an alien planet before it can properly be declared an “alien Earth”, and that’s exactly how it should be.

But we can certainly find joy, before then and until then, in the detection of worlds the size of our own, in life-friendly orbits. The more we find of those, the more likely it makes the eventual discovery of a genuine, ocean- and lake-covered world, complete with snow-capped mountains, lush forests and kittens (my own personal test of true terrestrial status!).

Then… ah, then we can start the true celebrations, and start the real wide-eyed speculation. When we find the first true Earth-like world, somewhere Out There, it will be impossible, absolutely impossible, not to wonder if it is inhabited by beings like ourselves. Beings with their own history, art and culture. A civilisation with its own stories, myths and legends, its own Mozart, Turner and DaVinci, Shakespeare, Bradbury and Clarke. A civilisation with its own identity, beauty and glory.

When we discover the first true alien Earth it will shoot right to the top of the list of destinations for the first starship to be built by Mankind, even if such a ship’s construction is still centuries away at that point. It will change the way we view the universe, and our place in it, forever. That day can’t come soon enough. But it’s not here yet.

So, where are we, really? Well, I’ll tell you. We’re in an amazing, golden age of exploration, that’s where we are. And we’re all alive at a time when every single one of us can go out on a dark and starry night, look up at the sky and know, without any doubt, without any uncertainty, that we are staring up at a sky full of worlds. That is an incredible, incredible thing, don’t you think?

(Before I say anything else I have a serious question: when are we going to start giving names to these extrasolar worlds? While we space geeks and enthusiasts are fascinated by them,  I honestly think the public won’t connect with or feel excited about the discoveries of exoplanets until we start giving them proper names. I mean, ok, “Kepler 11b” is accurate but come on, it’s BORING!!!!!!! What’s the convention for naming these planets? Do the Kepler team get to name them? Is it an IAU decision? )

If you take this idea and run with it, and get carried away with the maths, you can come up with an amazing, mind-blowing statistic: if the KEPLER FOV is representative of the whole sky – if it’s an average sample, and not some bizarre, planet-packed oddity – then there may be as many as 70 million Earth-sized planets in our Galaxy, and as many as a million of those worlds orbiting in habitable zones. Just take a moment to think about that. The Milky Way might have a million Earths in it. A million. Earths.

THIS is why I despair that more people don’t “get” astronomy. Where else would you find an idea so huge, so face-slappingly incredible?

I’ll leave you with a quick appeal. On the next clear night, grab a warm coat, find somewhere dark, and look to the west, scanning the sky until you see Deneb and Vega shining just above the treetops. Then, in your imagination, in your mind’s eye, draw the KEPLER FOV between them. Then, having done that, picture that grid sprinkled with hundreds and hundreds of coloured dots, like tiny Skittles, or those minute “hundreds and thousands” cake decorations… Then, having done that, mentally reach into the KEPLER FOV with your hands, plunge them into the coloured dots, scoop them up and then scatter them across the whole of the sky… and then look at the heavens, at a sky thick with planets like pollen grains… (click on the next image…)

Because that might actually be the case.

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3 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by mars_stu, Craig Clark. Craig Clark said: RT @mars_stu: Cumbrian Sky blog post on the Kepler news: https://cumbriansky.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/staring-up-at-a-sky-full-of-worlds […]

  2. This is exciting enough to bring tears to my eyes. How utterly exciting!

  3. I cant amastion why we would say no to exploring space, knowing that there are untold earth story’s to be told!…

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