Jason Kendall
William Paterson University
Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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Kepler Space Telescope: The Search is On for Earth-Sized Planets
July 10, 2009

The quest to find planets around others stars has intrigued and beguiled people for centuries. Do they exist? Can they support life? How do we find them? Can we get there from here? The Kepler Space Telescope, launched on March 6 is the first NASA space telescope solely designed to hunt for Earth-like planets around other stars. This telescope will answer the most burning question about how common Earth-like planets are around Sun-like stars. The KST will conclusively answer whether or not our Earth is just one face in the crowd or is truly alone in our Galaxy.

On July 10 at 9:00 PM, Jason will be giving a lecture at Columbia University's Astronomy Department Public Outreach Summer Series. Admission is free, and as always, Columbia holds a star-gazing party on the roof after the talk. For more information and the location of Pupin Hall, visit http://outreach.astro.columbia.edu/.

Learn more about the Kepler Space Telescope at the NASA Website

And here is the observing report for July 8:

It was a great night. We had about 20 people show up, and one man and his son - Chris and Will - who brought a 10″ Orion Starquest Dobsonian. After a bit of fiddling and collimation, we had a great second scope. Then Mr. King from Fort Tryon Park area came by with his binoculars and his lawnchair. It really became a star party out in the baseball diamond. Even better was a group of people who just started teaching each other the names of the stars in the sky. (Thanks Rob!) I was able to just point and look.

We looked at Saturn, M3, M13, M29, M57, various double stars and clusters. But we stayed out quite late to see Jupiter rising above the trees at midnight, just following the Moon. Some gracious neighbors stuck around and got me a slice of pizza. And I must tank Fred who once again helped me cart stuff up the stairs. There were so many OOH!s and AAAH!s that night, with some people coming up from Queens and Brooklyn. It is just a great way to spend the evening.

After Columbia shuts down, I might try to see the conjunction of The Moon, Jupiter and Neptune, as they rise at 11PM. It will be a glorious apparition.

Here is what it will look like: jupiter-moon-neptune.jpg

July 10, 2009. It was a dark and cloudless night. I was asked some months ago to give a talk on some topic at Columbia University as part of their public outreach program. I had been bitten by the fun of the exoplanet bug, and told the head of the program, Cameron Hummels, that I would talk about NASA's first phase of the Terrestrial Planet Finder Program. There has been a strong shift in NASA's focus in the last decade to the hunt for planets around other stars and life on those planets. This shift has been integral to the reboot of NASA. After the successes of Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity, Galileo, Cassini and of course Hubble, the public's interest has been drawn quite understandably to the broad vistas seen and to the tantalizing findings of potential life on other planets and moons in our Solar System. The most natural extension of these efforts is to conduct a grand survey of the sky hunting for planets like Earth around other stars. I thought it would be great to give an update on the exciting search for other planets. Also, as part of my volunteer work with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador, I was able to get a lot of posters, lithographs and bookmarks for everyone in attendance.

For millenia, people have pondered whether life exists on other planets. Even as far back as the ancient Greeks, particularly Epicurus, people have wondered. More recently, great sci-fi writers like Asimov, Clarke, Wells, Verne, Bradbury, Heinlein and even Douglas Adams have given serious, playful and thoughtful explorations of what it would mean for life to be on other planets, and the conditions for life and what it means for there to be planets to be visited. Later, with Star Trek, we were transported around looking for new life and new civilizations. Far ahead of his time Johannes Kepler, who, after spent his whole life trying to discover the hidden mechanisms of the universe to support his astrological ideas, after writing his Three Laws, wrote a wonderful book “Somnium.” This book imagined life on other planets as he perceived it in a dream. In honor of his fundamental contribution to the understanding of the motions of the planets and his unflagging pursuit of the truth, NASA named the first telescope dedicated to the discovery of planets around other stars in his honor: the Kepler Space Telescope.

The Kepler Space Telescope is a one-meter Schmidt camera with a huge photometer put at the prime focus. Launched on March 7, 2009 the telescope was successfully placed in an Earth-trailing orbit. The dust cover was popped on April 7, and the first image of the KST was released on April 13. The star field is 105 square degrees in the region between Vega and Deneb, looking along the Orion Arm of the Milky Way. In this direction, there are approximately 3 million stars within 6000 light years of Earth. The telescope will stare at this same star field for the next 5 years, hunting for tiny variations in the starlight indicative of Earth-sized planets. Of those 3 million stars, about 100,000 are Solar-like. Of those stars, if planetary plane orientations are random, then about 0.1% will be aligned such that Kepler will see a transit. So, if Earth-like planets are common around Sun-like stars, then a few hundred will be found. If none are found, then Earths are rare, and we are alone.

As I chatted about these points, I took open questions from the audience, and was glad to see a number of friendly faces in the crowd, like rich Rosenberg and Bruce Kamiat. There were also a number of friends from Inwood that came down to the campus to listen in. The most striking thing about this talk is how intensely interested people are in this topic. Earths around other stars grab the imagination like nothing else. With so many questions, and judging by how on-topic they were, people were truly interested and following along. Afterwards, the Columbia crew opened up their scopes on the roof and invited the public to take in the stars. Attended by about 200 people, the event was a great success.

But that was not the whole evening. I announced that I would take anyone interested up to Inwood to look at Jupiter and Neptune which were in conjunction that evening. But that turned out to be an excellent adventure. Taking two trains and a long walk through CUNY, Bruce Kamiat helped lead us on a long trek (we were too cheap to take taxis) all the way up to Inwood. When we finally arrived, and I grabbed by scope, it was 1:30 AM, and the clouds were rolling in. In little park, our band of 12 people who made that long trek through MTA breakdowns and repair were joined by 12 more area kids who were out in the park taking in the evening. Having never looked through a telescope, many of the kids were entranced by the Moon and Jupiter. Too tired to stay out past 2AM, I packed it up, and left 4 intrepid observers in the park who just decided that they would turn the evening into an overnight event. I heard from them the next day that they stayed up until dawn with star charts and a pair of binoculars. In summary, it was a great evening which inspired so many people to dive into the stars that they forgot about the next day. With visions of planets around other stars and local celestial wonders in their heads, they joined Kepler in a waking “Somnium,” again proving the power of the quiet and beautiful night sky.

About Jason Kendall

I am currently adjunct faculty at William Paterson University teaching astronomy. I hold a Master of Science in Astronomy from New Mexico State University. I am also a board member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. Since 2008, I have led the Inwood Astronomy Project which brought over 200 events of stargazing and public astronomy outreach to upper Manhattan, including the historic Inwood Star Fest, where Inwood Hill Park lights were turned off as part of the 100 Hours of Astronomy event in IYA2009. This was the first time in New York City history when park lights were turned off for an astronomy event. I've also focused on park safety due to an uptick in sexual assaults in Washington Heights and Inwood during 2011. I've worked to make our parks safer by encouraging public use of parks at night through night-time events with Park Rangers. I have led numerous "starwatching parties" and astronomy events in New York City, New Mexico, Minnesota, New Jersey, Connecticut and Texas. I am also proud to have been part of the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador Program from 2009 to 2012. It all started way back in the fourth grade by the encouragement of two noted astronomers, Charles Schweighauser and Bart Bok. I saw Saturn through Charlie's telescope at then Sangamon State University on a clear Illinois night, and Bart encouraged me under those stars to study hard to come visit him at Kitt Peak National Observatory. I finally did make it down there about a decade after Bart passed away, and I found the favorite spots in Tucson, Arizona, where Bart and his wife Priscilla would spend when they were not gazing at the stars. Bart and his wife were pioneers in the study of the Milky Way, and their studies of the starforming regions called Bok Globules. It's even in my family. My great-grandfather was a Midwestern minister who used to preach his sermons out under the dark, cloudless nights. He always believed that getting out and experiencing the wonders of the natural world was a central part of being human. My family has always been inspired by his words: "We look up to look within." I hope that you'll join me under the stars or at one of my talks.

Come see what's up in the sky!

Jason Kendall

We look up to look within

William Paterson University Department of Physics American Astronomical Society Astronomical Society of the Pacific Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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