Friday, March 6, 2009

Looking for Earth 2

Spacecraft to blast off in search of 'Earths' is the headline today. NASA on Friday prepared to launch a telescope that will search our corner of the Milky Way galaxy for Earth-like planets.

The Kepler spacecraft is scheduled to blast into space on top of a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida just before 11 p.m. ET today.

"This is a historical mission. It's not just a science mission," NASA Associate Administrator Ed Weiler said during a pre-launch news conference.

"It really attacks some very basic human questions that have been part of our genetic code since that first man or woman looked up in the sky and asked the question: Are we alone?"

Kepler contains a special telescope that will stare at 100,000 stars in the Cygnus-Lyra region of the Milky Way for more than three years as it trails Earth's orbit around the Sun.

The Science Channel previewed the mission last evening as it presented three hours of space programs to eager amateur astronauts like me. I became interested in the stars when my father purchased an 8-inch reflecting telescope that he operated in our back yard in the 50's and 60's. It was a quite-powerful instrument which detailed the moons and rings of Saturn as well as far-away galaxies and nebulae. I retain memories of those magical evenings even today, especially as new instruments offer yet another glimpse into the heavens.

Black holes, exploding red giants, pulsars and quasars had not yet been discovered back then, and the twin mighty midgets, Voyager 1 & 2 had not sent back their marvelous images of our own planetary system and beyond. Today we look for planets similar in size as well as distance from their star in the hope of finding another world, another set of life, another intelligent species.

As Carl Sagan used to say, 'We are all star-stuff,' and thus, any newly discovered earth-like planets will also be star-stuff as will any life thereupon.

"Finding that most stars have Earths implies that the conditions that support the development of life could be common throughout our galaxy. Finding few or no Earths indicates that we might be alone." said William Borucki, Kepler's science principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.

As the universe is 13 billions years old, I suspect that there has been ample time for life to have evolved on many planets orbiting stars throughout our Milky Way galaxy. Maybe they already know about us. If so, I wonder if they have concluded that we are an 'intelligent' species?

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