Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Many scientists in the United States and worldwide are furious that the space agency NASA has apparently allowed a small body of Kepler scientists to sit on data that may confirm if another Earth-like planet lies within 'lens' reach of our solar system. (That's anywhere light years away.) But could the leaking of the discovery made by the Kepler scientists be due to a simple glitch in the machine?

It has been argued that more time was needed for Kepler scientists to confirm the discovery of over 140 Earth-like exoplanets. Apparently the 'yearly' transits of these planets needed to be confirmed by additional research, an investigation that would, under Earth-like circumstances, take three years.

Apparently it takes our planet one whole year to go around the sun and back again.

It takes three such years then to confirm the findings?

Not so. Dimitar Sasselov, an investigator with the Kepler group itself - accidentally on purpose? - released some of the findings to a special audience at Oxford, England. It was Sassilov that suggested that over 140 Earth-like 'candidates' had been detected by the Kepler Telescope - which even before all the science is done is pretty Earth shattering.

And so the scientific community went supernova.

Sasselov and his team estimate that there are over 100 million planets that are 'Earth-like'.

We are not alone.

We are not so special after all.

But could the 'Sasselov gaff' really conceal a hidden agenda on a tiny pale dot?

The Kepler mission's ultimate goal is (i) to find Earth-size planets, (ii) at the right distances from their parent stars - which does not mean the same distance as Earth is from its star by the way - and, iii) at a distance where liquid water makes them a potential abode for life as Jim knows it.

But does that mean that we will have to wait three years to confirm the three transits of a planet in order for it to be considered Earth-like?

Well no...

'Earth-like planets' simply lie inside the habitable zones of their parent star. The habitable zone is the area where liquid water will be present - which just happens to be the distance where we are in relation to our sun. Please note though that other worlds do not have to be the same distance from their suns as planet Earth is from its sun. Most, if not all of these planets, will probably circle their stars in months and not years... and so the reason for the wait is that damned glitch.

The task of confirming these 'candidates' has been made extremely difficult due to faulty light detectors on the telescope. The problem was made known prior to the launch. And that's the real reason why the Kepler announcement on the planets' discovery was pushed back to February 2011. Not to give scientists a chance to study and publish: but to tweak. And the real reason why Dr Sasselov was allowed to speak about some of the discoveries is that the Kepler Team will be best placed to pip other scientists to the post by drip-feeding news of each batch of Earth-like 'candidates' as and when each glitch in the telescope is fixed. QED.

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