1. KEPLER DID ALL THIS WHILE BEING BROKEN
Dr. Plavchan really freaked us out here. Turns out two of the four gyroscopes that direct Kepler broke. Bad times, right? Here’s why America is awesome.
Our NASA engineers figured out a way to point Kepler at 40 new stars every day by steering the telescope using the pressure generated by the light from the Sun. Yes, that’s correct: Americans figured out how to steer a space telescope using light.
Your move, China.
2. NOBODY SAYS WE CAN’T GO VISIT
“Going to the Moon used to be ‘impossible.’ Now everyone is doing it.” says Dr. Hickerson.
Don’t forget, it was only 66 years from the Wright Brothers’ flight to Neil Armstrong on the moon. Americans are amazing engineers. How amazing?
Funny you should ask …
3. THERE ARE MORE PLANETS OUT THERE THAN WE THOUGHT
Let’s not forget: We’re looking at these things with robot night vision goggles on space telescopes (just say that out loud). Scientists like Dr. Plavchan and Dr. Hickerson are positive there are more out there, farther from their stars.
Dr. Plavchan says, “Current best estimate is that for every one to ten sunlike stars, there could be a planet that is habitable like the Earth.” Now think about how many stars there are. Need to sit down?
4. NASA IS FAR FROM DONE
Kepler’s not the end, not by a long shot.
Say hi to TESS, the next mission that NASA is launching in 2018 to hunt for new planets, only it’s not the same as Kepler. TESS will be hunting closer to Earth, nothing further than 1,000 light years away (Kepler started at 3,000) and with much better detection methods.
TESS has good chances, because as we’re learning …
5. WE CAN SEE WEATHER ON THE PLANETS (KIND OF)
Kepler’s friend, the Spitzer Space Telescope, can find the heat on each planet using transmission spectroscopy to find infrared signals from each planet.
Yes, NASA is using space night vision goggles to see the weather on other planets, which might be the coolest thing we’ve ever heard — because night vision goggles. In space.
6. MATH TELLS US WHAT THEY’RE MADE OF
When Kepler finds a star, Dr. Plavchan and the team look at the amount of light the planet blocks to figure out its size. Then they take that information, compare it to how the star and planet’s gravity interacts, more math, then see how the other planets act. This gives them the mass and density, which the team uses to figure out what the planets are made of.
Take that, B+ in 10th grade algebra!
7. WE FOUND THEM BY THEIR SHADOWS
According to Dr. Plavchan, Kepler works by staring “at over 150,000 stars simultaneously in the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra to detect small changes in brightness when the planet transits in front of the star as we see it from Earth.”
How sensitive is Kepler? It can find a planet when it blocks 100 parts per million of the star’s light, which is also how they know what it’s made of, because …
8. THESE PLANETS ARE HOT (REALLY HOT)
According to Dr. Plavchan, all but less than 10 of these new planets are way too hot to support life. Why?
Turns out they are “…much closer to their stars than Earth.” Why? Good question. “That isn’t because they are more common than planets further away from their stars like Earth is from the Sun,” Dr Plavchan says, “but rather those are the easiest to find.”
Oh, we forgot to mention …
9. ET WILL LOOK NOTHING LIKE WE THINK HE WILL
Ever notice how on TV and movies, aliens have two eyes, two arms, two legs, and communicate by speaking? It turns out we’re probably WAY off about this.
“Even on Earth, life has all sorts of forms,” says Dr Hickerson, “Anything from slime mold to jellyfish to dolphins and elephants. Even if aliens came from a planet exactly like Earth, they probably would not look much like us at all.”
10. YOU’RE PROBABLY NOT GOING THERE
Let’s build a starship and go to Kepler-62e — because science! Dr. Hickerson says there’s a better way: interstellar nanoprobes (which is our new favorite phrase to say out loud). What are they? “Tiny microchips with whole experiments on them that we shoot off at near the speed of light to somehow send back information. We don’t know how to do that yet, but it would be a cool idea.”
Yeah, they’re working the kinks out.
11. WE’RE PROBABLY LOOKING IN THE WRONG PLACE
That? That’s Europa. One of the leading candidates to find life. Where is it? It’s a moon of Jupiter.
Why? It’s covered in ice, which is covering oceans of water. Water, as you know, supports life.
Dr. Hickerson says, “So far, everywhere we have looked for life in a place with warm water, we have found tons of it. So I would put my money on life being right in our own backyard.”
12. SCIENCE IS PLAYING THE ODDS
Can we find life? That depends on how many we find.
“In terms of ETs,” Dr. Hickerson says, “the more planets we find, the more places we can look for life.”
Yeah, you read that right. Science is using the same strategy you use on Lotto scratch-offs — because of course they are. Oh, and the weirdest part?
13. EARTH WILL BE UNRECOGNIZABLE WHEN YOU RETURN
So say you book it to a new planet. You find one 20 light years away. Easy, right? Dr. Hickerson did the math to show us how weird this gets.
Because of “time dilation” a round trip at 90 percent the speed of light it takes 20 years to you (because at that speed, space itself contracts). Too bad it took 40 years on Earth.
Go far enough away, and you may return to Planet Of The Apes.
14. WE’RE LOOKING AT THEM IN THE PAST
Light travels. So if Kepler-62e is 1,200 light-years from here, we are looking at it 1,200 years ago.
According to Dr. Hickerson, “…this month, we will watch as an enormous cloud of gas gets swallowed up by the black hole in the center of the galaxy. But we are 26,000 light years away, so we are actually watching what happened back when humans were still hunting woolly mammoths.”
Mind blown yet? Just wait …
15. THEY’RE INSANELY FAR AWAY
Example: Kepler-62e orbits a star in the constellation Lyra. That star happens to be 1,200 light years from here.
Dr. Hickerson told us that even traveling at the speed of light (which is impossible) it’d be a 1,200-year trip. One way. Which creates this weirdness …