Friday, March 6, 2009

Earth-like Planets Ahoy!

For those who don’t already know, NASA’s Kepler telescope is scheduled to launch tonight at 10:49pm EST. I’ll probably still be sitting in a darkened movie theater, staring into Dr. Manhattan’s big blue dong by that time, but I’ll try and TiVo it. For three and a half years, Kepler will stare into a patch of space containing the constellations Cygnus and Lyra in search of Earth-like (or Earth-sized, at least) planets around distant stars. It seems like almost every star we look at these days has a planet spinning around it, but we’ve detected mostly gas giants that can’t harbor life as we know it. While there’s always the possibility that Kepler will turn up nothing, thus wasting 600 million more federal dollars that could have gone into volcano monitoring, it’s very likely that Earth-like planets will be as ubiquitous as their larger siblings. And if we’re lucky, we’ll be able to detect the kind of water and oxygen rich atmosphere that will indicate a good target for our future interstellar conquests. Look out, aliens! It’s manifest destiny all over again! More details here.

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