Weird Science: Kepler and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

The search for extraterrestrial life is going on all over the place. One of the most well known ET seekers is SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. As the name implies, SETI doesn’t just want life, it wants intelligent life. SETI’s pretty big. And formalized. There’s an organization that acts as a hub for all things SETI called the SETI Institute. According to their website, “The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.” So maybe it’s not necessarily just about intelligence after all.

SETI’s been around since the 80s and “employs over 150 scientists, educators, and support staff.” Two things come to mind when considering SETI: the Allen Telescope Array and the use of citizen scientists.

The Allen Telescope Array utilizes a number of small dish telescopes to collect radio waves from the far reaches. Apparently if there’s intelligence out there, they’ve got talk radio just like we do. And we’re going to be tuning in. I’m wondering the same thing you are: Do we really need to collect more Rush Limbaugh-like content?

Surely I jest.

About those citizen scientists. I remember reading a while ago about how thousands of amateur astronomers’ computers have been connected up in a grand search for the sign that we are not alone. I can’t remember the details or when that was, but these days the Institute has an app to assist you, fellow astronomer, in joining the search for ET. Here’s a quickie quote from the “Explore The Skies Yourself” page:

“Are you ready to join the search? We have collaborated with Adobe Systems and The Hathersage group to develop setiQuest Explorer, an app that runs in your browser and on Android devices.

The software was released in beta a year ago. New users are being added to the program regularly. You can sign up here to be included in the beta.

setiQuest Explorer makes it incredibly easy for you to search for evidence of extra-terrestrial technology. Who knows, you might be the first to spot a signal.”

Besides the SETI effort, we have NASA’s Mars probe program. According to the NASA website, the defining question for this program is: is there life on Mars? To find out, NASA plans to “follow the water.” In other words, find ice, dry river beds, rocks that only form when water is present. The thinking is where there’s water, there’s life. To follow the water, NASA has proceeded in three stages. 1) Conduct flybys. 2) Orbit the Planet. 3) Land on the surface.

We’ve been in the third stage for quite some time. NASA has already landed two “laboratories” for collecting and analyzing samples. The third, Curiosity, just launched on November 26th. It is now in its “cruise phase,” which means it’s on its way to the planet. It’s scheduled to land in August of this year and will operate for one Martian year (almost two Earth years). What will it be doing there? Lots of stuff. But mostly it will follow the water for signs of life.

And finally we get to Kepler, another of NASA’s projects. The Kepler project is not overtly searching for extraterrestrial life. According to one of NASA’s Kepler sites, “The scientific objective of the Kepler Mission is to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems.” But according to the Drake Equation (N = R * f_p n_e f_l f_i f_c L B_s N), which is used to calculate the likelihood of non-Earth life existing in the Universe, one of the important factors for life to arise is suitability of environment. Environment being a habitable planet. The important variables in the equation are f_p and n_e. f_p is the fraction of stars that have planets, and n_e is the number of planets that are capable of supporting life.

Kepler ties into all that by its very mission: if we find and study exoplanets, planets not in our solar system, we may be able to get some numbers for f_p and n_e. That just leaves the other seven variables in the Drake. We’ll save those for another time.

What is Kepler? It’s a spacecraft whose purpose is to find “Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets.” In general, it’s out there taking pictures of stars, transmitting the photos back to us so we can determine if there are any planets around them. The process is not easily capsizable so just check wikipedia if you want the details.

Where is Kepler? It’s somewhere in the Milky Way. Sorry I can’t narrow it down further. There’s no “Kepler is here” map at NASA. Pity. Somebody knows where it is at this moment, but not me.

So what is Kepler up to? Well… wow! According to a 12/5/2012 Kepler press release from NASA, Kepler has discovered 2,396 planet candidates since it was launched in March of 2009. And now it has found its first planet that has been confirmed to orbit in a star’s habitability zone, the area around a star that a planet might possibly support life based on life as we define it. (I’m a little confused by the fact that further on down the page it says: “There are 48 planet candidates in their star’s habitable zone.” Apparently those 48 have not been confirmed yet. Or something.)

This is not so much weird as it is exciting. What will be weird is if they do in fact discover life on a planet, be it bacterial, vegetal, or light-sabre wielding, force-using, galaxy-imperializing, full-blown intelligent, humanoid.

Thanks for reading.

Sue Lange

Sue Lange’s latest ebook, Tritcheon Hash, is full of lapses of logic and weird science. “It’s a wild, good read.” Get your copy right here at good ol’ BVC.


This essay was first posted on December 9, 2011 at the Singlarity Watch blog.



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