Wednesday, February 16, 2011



When I heard of the Ames event, I was excited about the Kepler scientists, having read their NASA profiles, watched their press conferences, and seen various team members speak at SETI. YouTube is chock full of their endeavors, and deservedly so. Kepler's Search For Habitable Planets is truly one of the most amazing projects humanity has ever had the privilege to watch unfold.

It was a true honor to shake hands with some of the brilliant and hard-working people behind this pioneering effort!

Pictures of Natalie in Picasa Ames Gallery
With Kepler Deputy Science Team Lead Natalie Batalha

One of my favorites is Natalie Batalha, because she is such a great speaker and can explain concepts in a very accessible way for people of all ages; her passion for her work comes out in such a blossoming, infectious way! I first saw Ms. Batalha on KTEH Television, and was overjoyed to get some of my own video footage. One of the most entertaining stories of the morning was how Kepler 10-b came to be known as "Planet Vulcan".

The nutshell version, for any newcomers:
Named after Johannes Kepler, the 17th century German astronomer who devised empirical laws of planetary motion, this observatory was launched in March 2009 with the aim of discovering "Earth-like" planets orbiting other stars.

Kepler uses a photometer to examine the brightness of nearly 150,000 stars in a fixed field of view, whereby the observations are analyzed to detect "transiting" (or, periodic light fluctuations) that indicate the presence of planets passing in front of those stars. If it takes about the same time to orbit as Earth, we can deduce that many of those planets are also in the Galactic Habitable Zone.

Why doesn't the Hubble already do this? The Kepler mission has a larger field of view (10 degrees square), and is dedicated to detecting repeated planetary transits -- and thus has a higher probability of detecting Earth-like planets. By contrast, Hubble is often turned in many different directions to study various celestial activity, and does not focus continuously on just one starfield as Kepler does.

"Our imaginations are SOARING when we see these planet
candidates. We're all thinking it: what's out there? Kepler
is not a mission designed to find life, but it's a mission that
inspires that ponderance, and that's the beauty and poetry
of what we are doing here. This is a mission for humanity."
~ Natalie Batalha

Hardcore Science Geeks: The full lecture can be viewed at the NASA Ames UStream, and the first minute is me up front with Natalie, asking for a quick picture, LOL! Didn't know they were filming already! Caught! ;)