Planet Hunters in the ‘Verse

18.04.yc116 Jeni < Jatari Constellation < Kor-Azor Region

OOC (Out of character):

Voyager I in the New Eden System

If you’re a fan of EVE Online or SciFi in general, and I’m assuming that you are since you’re here, then there’s probably a better than average chance that you’re a follower of real life space related news. That’s very true in my case. As a child growing up in the 60’s, I remember sitting in my elementary class room and watching NASA’s Apollo missions. At home, I recall watching the original Star Trek series on TV. Both stirred within me the sense, wonder, and awe that is our universe.

Today, with our advances in technology, the advent of the internet, and our ever increasing connectedness, we’re able to do many things that seemed unfathomable in days past. Who would have ever thought that a common person such as myself, could lend a hand or offer services to help in scientific pursuits? I believe the first such joint venture was the SETI at Home program. Where you could lend your personal computing power to aid in the data analysis for possible signals from beyond our solar system.

My character in EVE Online, Katia Sae, has a personal mission to visit every system in the game and record her journey by taking “pictures”, screen shots, of every planet along the way. In real life, like her, I’m offering my time and services to aid in the search for extraterrestrial planets via a website called Planet Hunters. So what is Planet Hunters?

Artist’s impression of the Kepler telescope

On March 7, 2009, NASA launched the Kepler spacecraft as part of their Discovery Program. Its mission was to survey a portion of our region in the Milky Way to discover Earth-sized extrasolar planets in or near the habitable zone of that systems star. The habitable, or Goldilocks, zone is basically an orbital distance around a star that would place a planet not too close as to be too hot, or too far away to be too cold for liquid water to pool on the surface and therefore provide an environment for life to form as we understand it today. The Kepler mission basically takes observational readings of a stars emitted light and looks for dips in the brightness to determine if something, such as a planet, crosses in front of the star.

Basically like how we could measure the sharp decease in light seen by us as our moon eclipses our sun. That’s a drastic example because what Kepler is really looking for is something more along the lines of how we would observe Mercury or Venus transiting across our sun. If you were to measure the light of our sun before the transit, it would be at a higher reading than when one of those planets passes in front of it, even as small of a measurement that loss of light would be. That’s the kind of minute measurements that Kepler’s data is being analyzed for. The interesting thing is, even with our computing power and mathematical analysis that we’re able to perform, there’s nothing like the human eye that can spot patterns where machines fail.

Artist concept of Kepler 186f

That’s where Planet Hunters comes in to play. The data from the Kepler project is visually presented in a manner that allows someone, a volunteer, to see how the brightness of a star changes over time. As of July 2012, over 12 million observations had been analyzed by human eyes and of those, 34 candidate planets had been found that the machines missed. Most amazing of all, two Planet Hunter volunteers found a Neptune-like planet orbiting a four star, double binary, system. That’s two sets of two stars, all orbiting each other, and the planet orbiting them. That’s a really complex solar system and really amazing that they found it simply by looking at the data. As Spock would say, “Fascinating”.

Just this last week on April 17th, 2014, scientist announced Kepler 186f to be the first near Earth sized planet to be found within the “Goldilocks zone” of its star. Now that’s not the first planet found. So far, the Kepler project has found 962 confirmed planets and 2,800 candidates that need to be studied and verified. Those planets have all either been outside the habitable zone, too large, or too small, to be considered as truly Earth like. We may never be able to fully verify that Kepler 186f is truly Earth like because of its 500 light-year distance from us and our current technological ability to study it, but it looks pretty good from what we know so far. It may be possible to positively verify Earth like planets that are closer to us, once we find them, via telescopes that can take temperature and mass measurements or by identifying molecules in their atmospheres.

Kepler186_SystemSo, it would seem at the moment, that possible Earth like planets are 1 in 1,000 or maybe 1 in 500 if you count us. So, when you consider the billions and billions of stars out there…. hmm. The Kepler team has estimated, based on their findings, that there are at least 50 billion planets in the Milky Way with at least 500 million in the habitable zone. That’s just OUR galaxy. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory stated if all galaxies have similar numbers as ours, then there could be sextillion “Earth analog” planets in our universe.

How’s that for a New Eden?

You can read more about the Kepler spacecraft and Planet Hunters via Wikipedia, which has all the links to the resources. Check out this resource of Kepler’s Tally of Planets. It visually shows and compares all of the systems and planets found so far with links to other articles about them. Really cool.

Fly safe!

Our Solar System compared to Kepler-186

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