Search for life in heavens is appropriately named | The Latte Guy | March 20
By TOM TYNER
Bainbridge Island Review Columnist
March 19, 2009 · Updated 4:48 PM
Buried in the news recently was an item about the launching of NASA’s $600 million Kepler satellite on a mission to search the distant heavens for Earth-like planets.
Kepler will be looking for such “exoplanets” by noting the blip they make when they pass between their sun and the satellite’s sophisticated telescope.
What Kepler’s really trying to find are new planets in the outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy that might be capable of supporting life as we know it. More than 300 new exoplanets have been discovered since 1995, but none of them appear to have the right conditions to host life.
They are either too hot, made up of swirling masses of super-heated gases (known to astronomers as the Limbaugh Belt), or else they are too cold, consisting of vast frozen wastelands inhospitable to man (known as the Pelosi Constellation).
The Kepler telescope measures the slight darkening of a star when a planet passes in front of it. Every half hour, Kepler will record the brightness of 100,000 stars using a 95-megapixel camera.
NASA says its camera is so sensitive that it can detect the seemingly imperceptible dimming of a car headlight as a fly wanders across it. That’s good news if any of the planets discovered by the Kepler mission have flies and/or cars.
NASA scientists hope to find evidence of at least one other planet where life may exist, and thereby establish that we are not alone in the universe.
If they don’t find any inhabitable planets using this new technology, it may prove that the Earth is indeed unique in supporting advanced life forms in what is otherwise a completely barren and lifeless universe. To be honest, I’m not sure which possibility frightens me more.
Isn’t it a uniquely human endeavor to be spending more than a half-billion dollars to find out if we have any celestial neighbors or if we earthlings are really the only life-form game in town?
That’s a lot of money to spend to deal with a bad case of cosmic loneliness. Maybe we should get NASA hooked up on Facebook or Twitter.
Given the state of affairs on the planet these days, one might argue that what we really need to do is get better at getting along with the planetary neighbors we already have before we go off into deep space in search of new, extraterrestrial ones.
Is there any reason to think that the discovery of other life forms in our galaxy will be a good thing for either them or for us? (Unless, of course, they are made of petroleum or water and don’t mind sharing.)
And isn’t it interesting that this particular mission was named after Johannes Kepler, the German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer?
Kepler lived in an era where there was no real distinction between astronomy and astrology, much like the Reagan Years. He is best known for his laws of planetary motion and his work as a pioneer in the field of optics.
Kepler was born in 1571, the son of a mercenary who left his family when Johannes was 5 to fight in the 80 Years’ War and never returned. Kepler’s mother was an innkeeper’s daughter who, in her later years, was tried for witchcraft.
Kepler was born prematurely, was sickly and weak as a child, and suffered through a bout of childhood smallpox that left him with crippled hands. He married Barbara Muller in 1595. Although only 23, Frau Muller had already been widowed twice before she married Kepler.
They had five children, two of whom died in infancy; another died of smallpox at age 6. Barbara died of Hungarian spotted fever in 1611.
By all accounts, Kepler’s first marriage was a loveless and acrimonious affair. He remarried in 1613 to a woman 20 years his junior and proceeded to produce another six children, three of whom died in childhood.
Despite his acknowledged brilliance, Kepler struggled all his life to earn a livable wage, and it was only many years after his death at age 59 that he received the scientific recognition he deserved. The late Carl Sagan described Kepler as the first astrophysicist and the last scientific astrologer.
How appropriate, then, that at this pivotal moment in the 21st century we name a spacecraft seeking out intelligent life in the universe after a man whose unwavering focus on the heavens belied a terrestrial life marked by struggle and tragedy. Sail on, Kepler!
May this journey bring your soul the peace that escaped it during your earthly voyage.
Tom Tyner is an attorney for the Trust for Public Land. He is author of “Skeletons From Our Closet,” a collection of writings on the island’s latte scene.