Thursday, March 5, 2009

Finding the 'Goldilocks Zone' Is No Fairytale

In less than 24 hours, NASA will launch the Kepler science satellite to find planets just like ours in a small patch of universe not so far far away.

Scanning starlight is Kepler’s task as its camera looks for signs of Earth-like planets “like a flea on a headlight,” according to today’s article by CBS News Space Consultant (and resident Trekkie) William Harwood.

With approximately 200 billion stars in our galaxy, this might take a while, right? But no. We’ll have a report in about 3.5 Earth years.

In that time, our tax dollars at work will let us know how many planets are in the “Goldilocks Zone.” That means not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Okay, no one expects to find three bears or any porridge. There’s a limit to how far NASA can stretch a fairytale.

Where We’re Looking
The real estate we earthlings are looking at is a desirable location near "the left wing of Cygnus the Swan, midway between the stars Deneb and Vega."

I know exactly where that is . . . It’s a commuter’s dream -- between 600 and 3,000 light years away. Let’s see, at warp speed, I think that’s less than an hour and much less traffic than my current commute around the Beltway.

To quote from the article:

"The habitable zone is where we think water will be," said William Borucki, Kepler principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center.

"If you can find liquid water on the surface, we think we may very well find life there. So that zone is not too close to the star, because it's too hot and the water boils. Not too far away where the water's condensed and ice-covered, a planet covered with glaciers. It's the goldilocks zone, not too hot, not too cold, just right for life."

Johannes Kepler was a 17th century astronomer. He figured out the laws of planetary motion. NASA's 21st century Kepler “weighs 2,320 pounds and measures 15.3 feet from top to bottom.”

We’ll see what this new Kepler figures out . . . the amazing thing is that results come back in 2012. The end of the Mayan calendar . . . a little spooky, but we can handle it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Searching for Signs of Intelligent Life

Wonder what it takes to pilot a spaceship / telescope to search for a planet just like ours not too, too many light years away?

Well, not exactly like ours. This one would be "inhabitable" and I assume have lots of good water. That's something in short supply on our Mother Earth . . . water.

Reading statistics on agricultural water needs the other day, I was truly stunned. Every acre of farmed land requires millions of gallons of water to produce one string bean and seven artichokes.

I guess -- if I wasn't a raging optimist -- I'd figure we're done for. The end will be a scene from a horror film with millions of us crowding the shoreline drinking sea water and Dr. Pepper until our bodies explode.

And then just in the nick of time, the telescope beams back lovely photos of cascading waterfalls and sunflowers and green trees . . . but here's the rub -- it will take us 65 years to get there. So the plan is what? A ship of kindergartners beam up and travel at warp speed arriving just in time to populate this new planet?

Enough. Read the story in the New York Times today in the science section and let me know the real plan. It's the Kepler spacecraft and it's looking for "worlds like our own."

Peace, Meredith