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Friday, February 28, 2014

OUR UNIVERSE HAS A SEPTILLION PLANETS

There are ten trillion planets in our Milky Way Galaxy.  And that's a conservative estimate.  Oh, there are more than 200 billion galaxies in our Universe, meaning something like 10 with twenty four zeroes planets, or a SEPTILLION  (quadrillion in the UK) planets.  How many Universes?  Watch Chris Anderson (left).  I'll save you five minutes of your life:  between 1 and infinity.

In 1976 I joined 19 other professors at NASA's Ames Research Center to design an instrument to detect the first extrasolar planet.  Chapter 4 of SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity reports on this adventure.  The Kindle edition costs $3.99, but you don't need to even do that, as this blog site serialized the book.  Here is the excerpt for my Ames experience.  It was 16 years later in 1992 that the first exoplanet was acceptably confirmed.  If only NASA had funded my concept, I could have done it earlier for a tenth the cost, and, also determined the atmospheric composition of Earth-sized planets.  Read my posting of 7July2013.

Clearly I am not happy with NASA, so when they today announced finding 715 new extrasolar planets by Kepler (left), I said to myself, so what?  Why?  It was monumental to actually find the first planet outside our solar system, but when you reach 100 (the number is today up to 1800), it should be obvious that they completely surround us.  Shouldn't NASA now shift gears and turn to other tasks?  Like seeking signals?  Certainly don't even think about sending any one or any thing to those exoplanets.

 Then, I thought, wait a minute, isn't the Kepler telescope broken?   Yes, almost two years ago the space system shut down and appears to be beyond repair.  This latest finding represents the first two years of measurements from 2009.  Kepler supposedly found 3601 candidate planets, so a few more will no doubt be later verified.


Do you know how Kepler detects these planets?  The telescope looks at an area of the sky in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra and simultaneously measures variations in the brightness of more than 100,000 stars every 30 minutes, a method known as transit.  However, the orbit must be in proper alignment, which statistically means 1% of stars fit into this lucky state.  For an Earth-sized planet blocking a Sun-sized star (that's the diagram on the right with Earth that tiny dot near the middle in the 3'oclock direction), the light is diminished by 84 parts per million, or less than 1/100th of 1%.  You can't observe this precision with ground telescopes because stars "twinkle."

Okay, so why doesn't NASA now declare victory and expand their efforts to detect signals from extraterrestrials?  You know, like Jodie Foster did in CONTACT?  One of my Huffington Post articles is entitled, Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  For one, Congress in 1993 prohibited NASA from doing any Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence work.  In 2001 Congress had a hearing on the subject, but nothing much else has happened.  In 2003 the New York Times hinted that SETI respect seems to be gaining, but NASA officials still treat it like a four-letter word.

Sure, blame Congress, but NASA is finding ways to continue to play this game with attempted extravagances such as:
  • The Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF): this option was killed in 2011, but could be linked to the now $9 billion James Webb Space Telescope (right) contemplated for launch in 2018, but don't hold your breath.
NASA has an important role to play in creativity and challenging our youth, but why do they mostly advance multi-billion dollar contraptions?  Because the aerospace companies are essential for congressional lobbying, and they wouldn't bother helping NASA if it only supported paper studies.  Unless China lands a man on the moon, NASA will only continue to recede into oblivion.

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