Where would modern astronomy be without scientists like Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus or Johannes Kepler? We probably would not be scanning the stars of the Milky Way Galaxy for exoplanets only 450 years later. We owe a lot to these scientists for their ingenuity.
We have moved on from handheld telescopes in the 1600’s to ones that now orbit the Earth and our Sun. More specifically, I am referring to the Kepler Space Telescope which has been operated by the National Aeronautical & Space Administration since its launch in March 2009. In the earliest days of astronomy, scientists exploration of the cosmos was limited by the technology at the time. The first handheld telescope was created by Hans Lippershey in 1608, and it wasn’t until 1990 when the Hubble Space Telescope was launched that we could begin to learn more about our past. Kepler took to the skies 19 years later for a precise mission to understand more about our Milky Way Galaxy.
Kepler’s job is simple. Launch up from Earth and orbit around the Sun where it will scan the same 150,000 stars in the Cygnus constellations. In doing so, NASA is hoping to confirm the existence of exoplanets orbiting stars outside of our solar system. It is remarkable, to think that in just over 400 years we have progressed from an Earth-centric model of our solar system; to understanding and accepting that we revolve around the Sun and finally to confirm the existence of thousands of planets orbiting hundreds of thousands of stars. This is just the tip of the iceberg to discovering life on other planets.
Kepler uses what is known as the transit photometry method to discover exoplanets. This means that Kepler stares at the same 150,000 stars looking for a decrease in the amount of light produced by any star in its field of view. When these dips in light have been recorded various times astronomers can confirm the existence of an exoplanet using data analysis. The following video demonstrates the transit photometry method at an accelerated rate.
Youtube NASA Video Channel
The transit photometry method is currently our best opportunity for discovering more exoplanets. We have seen a tremendous increase in confirmed discoveries since its launch, and Kepler is consistently delivering more confirmed exoplanets every day. Unfortunately, Kepler encountered technical difficulties in 2014 and its mission was restructured and released as K2. Its mission has been altered but currently remains in service.
The scientific advancements made by the Kepler team at NASA are on the cutting edge of astronomical discovery. Due to low federal funding in space exploration, I believe this is a subject that deserves more of the public’s attention. There was a time when we thought we were alone in the universe, it is becoming abundantly clear we may have had neighbours the entire time.
“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” – Arthur C. Clarke
Author: Ryan Berg