Friday, April 19, 2013

Name That Kepler Planet


Such an exciting media briefing from NASA Ames!  Live from the Bay Area of California, Mission Manager Roger Hunter offered the Reader's Digest recap of how the Kepler Space Telescope determines orbital periods via transits, then Principal Investigator William Borucki wasted no time in tantalizing us with newly-found planets in the habitable zone of a red star!

They turned the stage over to Research Lead Lisa Kaltenegger, and BAER Institute scientist Thomas Barclay, who emphasized the amazing diversity of solar systems we are finding in our universe, a beautiful example being the newly detected Kepler-62 system.

Kepler Mission
Starlight on Kepler 62E and F

Two of the system's five planets, 62E and 62F, are the smallest exoplanets yet found, almost certainly rocky, with possible land masses and water. In fact 62E may be a "waterworld" of sorts, and 62F has polar caps. Surely with such alluring possibilities, we could come up with better names for these beauties?

 (Lively tangential conversations on Twitter during the media briefing were afire with naming possibilities instead of simply catalogue numbers. While I don't believe in "dumbing down" the science, that doesn't mean we can't make the discoveries more colloquially accessible.)

Nerds will be excited about possible "life signatures" on a faraway sphere, no matter what it's called. But will the general public embrace Kepler finds without nicknames? Of course, interest and coverage would explode a hundred-fold if we started naming them after Star Wars characters. Sad but true, so hopefully there can be a happy medium, when we see planets capable of sustaining life.

Kepler Telescope
Awesome Animated Infographic from the New York Times.
Click to embiggen and mouse over each Orrery for details!

Barclay said it best: "This is no longer an academic or theoretical exercise."

True. We have actually FOUND habitable planets. That alone is mind-blowing! Add to that the idea that either world may not just be habitable, but absolutely HABITED! With every new possibility, we see less and less reason to consider ourselves a rarity.

Kepler consistently examines over 150,000 stars in the Cygnus / Lyra field of the Milky Way –- merely one small area of one small galaxy. In a few short years, thousands of candidates and hundreds of confirmed habitable planets have been detected. Imagine then, the implications of the overall numbers in the greater multiverse!

Another amazing implication of these observations and bodies of research is that we could potentially surmise the future of our own Earth, once we understand the lifespans of stars, and their effect on planets within their habitable zones.


Naturally, our excitement must be tempered with reasonable doubt. It's worth noting that if some faraway world is watching our solar system through a telescope, they would find both Earth and Mars in the "Galactic Habitable Zone" –- however, Mars gravity is unable to keep an atmosphere that would heat the planet surface. Just like us, they could only deduce possibilities, but at these distances, not know for sure.

However, each new project brings new data, each technological leap opens new possibilities, and as we add to our store of knowledge, our deductive powers of life signatures will only grow richer. The NASA TV session ended with press Q&A, and a novel opportunity to submit questions through social media, which I'm happy to see NASA centers embrace.

Many popular outlets such as New Scientist and Universe Today immediately covered the announcement with ample technical detail, and the original abstract for the Kepler-62 system can be found at the ScienceMag publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  

Now, let's think of some names!