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NASA Space Science

Hunt For Earth-Like Planets Delayed 56

An anonymous reader sends along this excerpt from Nature News: "Kepler, NASA's mission to search for planets around other stars, will not be able to spot an Earth-sized planet until 2011, according to the mission's team. The delays are caused by noisy amplifiers in the telescope's electronics. ... The problem is caused by amplifiers that boost the signals from the charge-coupled devices that form the heart of the 0.95-metre telescope's 95-million-pixel photometer, which detects the light emitted from the distant stars. Three of the amplifiers are creating noise that compromises Kepler's view. The noise affects only a small portion of the data, Borucki says, but the team has to fix the software — it would be 'too cumbersome' to remove the bad data manually — so that it accounts for the noise automatically. He says that the fix should be in place by 2011." Mindful of Halloween's approach, NASA has put up a piece looking at some of the already-known exoplanets that wouldn't be very friendly to human life.
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Hunt For Earth-Like Planets Delayed

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  • head scratch... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Friday October 30, 2009 @04:48PM (#29928699)

    but the team has to fix the software

    Why can't we just develop software on the ground to post-process the data?

    • by 2.7182 ( 819680 )
      God dammit! Why can't we just settle on the algae planet?
    • Re:head scratch... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Cedric Tsui ( 890887 ) on Friday October 30, 2009 @05:04PM (#29928905)
      Dunno. Maybe there's too much data to transmit, so they do much of the data processing on the satellite.
      • Re:head scratch... (Score:5, Informative)

        by cheesybagel ( 670288 ) on Friday October 30, 2009 @05:21PM (#29929067)
        Yep, the issue is bandwidth. The downlink does not have enough capacity to send the daily produced photographs for ground processing, so the satellite does on-board image processing on the photographs and just sends the results back to Earth. Consider the SuperWASP [] system generates 100 GB per night and you will get an idea of the amount of data being processed for this kind of application.
    • Perhaps because introducing incorrect data to your data stream destroys some of your bandwidth. Each incorrect byte is a byte that isn't carrying useful information, whether it's post-processed to be almost-right or not.

    • Re:head scratch... (Score:5, Informative)

      by bughunter ( 10093 ) <> on Friday October 30, 2009 @07:57PM (#29930527) Journal

      I used to design these kinds of cameras, and there are at least two potential reasons why this can't be done on the ground:

      Firstly, and most likely, there's an essential step that needs to be done in the camera hardware. Perhaps something related to Correlated Double Sampling [] or Pixel Binning [] needs to be adjusted. In the first case, the signal and reset measurements need to be done as close together as possible to reduce 1/f noise, which can quickly dominate the noise side of the SNR expression, and it may be the timing of these measurements that is at fault. In the latter case, there would be a sqrt(N) penalty for measuring the charge on each pixel and then adding the N pixels together. Conversely, reading each pixel multiple times may be necessary to overcome an unexpected noise source - a sqrt(N) improvement in readout noise can be had by measuring the pixel N times and calculating the average of the measurements. All of these adjustments can only be made at the camera; there's no way to accomplish this after the data has been digitized and radioed to Earth.

      2 - Bandwidth. There's just no bandwidth available to ship down the raw data so it can be processed on Earth. The spacecraft must send down reduced data and derivative results. Therefore, these corrections need to be made onboard.

      These reasons aren't necessarily exclusive, either... both could be true.

    • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

      Why can't we just develop software on the ground to post-process the data?

      You mean they're sending the developers to the probe? Now that's outsourcing!

  • by Jeremiah Cornelius ( 137 ) * on Friday October 30, 2009 @04:52PM (#29928735) Homepage Journal

    That's alright. I'll have another glass of this sherry, and warm me arse by the fire with the hounds.

    By the time day is out, we'll have roused to the horns and have the skin of these planets stretched for the drying, before the groom is done brushing nettles from the tail of the ol' horse.

    Now, where'd I lay that toothpick? I could use another one of those delightful sandwiches!

  • I think we can wait another couple years.

  • I'm from Tahiti so I might have missed something in the translation, but what is wrong with this planet?

  • I wish my project time lines gave me 3 years to fix a bug!
  • by stakovahflow ( 1660677 ) on Friday October 30, 2009 @05:11PM (#29928969)
    Whew! I almost thought my home planet would soon be discovered! Silly humans...
  • Higgs (Score:3, Funny)

    by mooingyak ( 720677 ) on Friday October 30, 2009 @05:13PM (#29928989)

    Sounds like the project might have inadvertently discovered the higgs boson at some point in the future.

  • That pushes back the date I'll actually be able to visit those planets by at least two years!

    What? You say we weren't planning on doing anything useful with the data anyway? Well in that case... who cares?!?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by belthize ( 990217 )

      That's not how project management works. The visit date is still the same, you just have two less years to implement.

      Oh we'll need to cut your implementation budget by 20% as well to account for some unexpected metal price fluctuations and fully fund the HR and Fiscal department re-baselining.

    • We're still waiting on someone to develop FTL drive so we can visit these planets and exploit and plunder them without having to spend several lifetimes getting there. In the meantime, this search will help us know where to go when we develop the FTL drive.

    • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

      That pushes back the date I'll actually be able to visit those planets by at least two years!

      Dude, give up on your 3-breasted green babe fantasy already.

    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      I wonder how humanity would be if it was full of people like you, I'm thinking they'd still be in the same cave in the same valley using stone age technology, because there's nothing obviously useful about ever going outside that box and start to melt bronze to get to the bronze age. We want to know because we want to know, whether it's astrophysics or social sciences (try putting a ROI on most of that stuff) or whatever. Of course this we can guess at but that's only because you can guess at what's just a

      • My point was, if we can't even begin to travel to or explore exoplanets for another 50 years, what does it matter if the search for them is delayed for a few years now? We will still have found plenty of them before we have the technology to do anything about them! I didn't say exploration wasn't a worthwhile goal in and of itself, I said knowing where those planets are right now doesn't do us a bit of good. It's like my philosophy of going to the doctor; if what he tells me doesn't change anything about th
        • by smoker2 ( 750216 )
          You are looking at the problem from entirely the wrong perspective. The point is not to discover where they are for travelling purposes, but if they are there at all. Do you think it is of no consequence whether the earth is unique in the universe ? Until astronomy proved that other planets existed and that they revolved around the sun, most people thought the sun went around the earth. Should we just have accepted that view ? Would satellites even exist providing TV communications etc if we didn't understa
      • by smoker2 ( 750216 )
        You don't know what bronze is do you ? I know what you're trying to say but making stupid comments doesn't help. There was an obvious benefit to using bronze over say copper or tin individually - that is it is harder. It is hard to see an obvious benefit to finding exoplanets. That doesn't mean there isn't one, but you have to dig a bit deeper for the reason. And contrary to popular belief it isn't to have somewhere to go. The more we know about the universe, and in particular other planets, the more we can
  • But in the end, he says, the team thought it was riskier to pry apart the telescope's electronic guts than to deal with the problem after launch.

    Can someone explain to me why this was the case?

  • ...that no planet's signature will approximate a noisy amplifier.
  • 2 years delay to analize that data... for?

    Communicate? Will take a lot of years to do a "conversation" if there happens to be intelligent life there

    Getting there? Still a lot to develop to be able to do such trip for human beings, just doing the technology to make us able to live for years or generations to get there is something potentially more important than finding a "good enough" planet out there. For machines the technology could be ready or close enough, but still, would be a version of the communica
    • by BobMcD ( 601576 )

      Allow me to introduce you to TFA:

      Borucki points out that the team was probably going to have to wait at least three years to find an extrasolar Earth orbiting in the habitable zone anyway. Astronomers typically wait for at least three transits before they confirm a planet's existence; for an Earth-sized planet orbiting at a distance similar to that between the Earth and the Sun, three transits would take three years.

      So no real urgency, per se.

      On the other hand, there is likely more we could do in the short term if we knew for certain that an Earth-like planet existed. We could shoot probes at it, point Hubbles at it, focus our efforts on detecting communication signals at it, and so on.

      We'll just have to wait even longer now to see if the project pans out.

      • On the other hand, there is likely more we could do in the short term if we knew for certain that an Earth-like planet existed. We could shoot probes at it, point Hubbles at it, focus our efforts on detecting communication signals at it, and so on.

        While the latter two make sense, the first one is dubious at this point. We've only created two spacecraft that have even left the Solar System (V'ger 1 & 2), and they're nowhere near reaching another star system, and they've been traveling for 30+ years now.

  • Why are we wasting so much money trying to find planets we can't get to? We should be looking for the Stargate instead. Sure we might get targeted by the snake heads but you'd be amazed what you can do with a little C4, a P90, and the occasional nuke. Throw in a language nerd and a hot chick... This at least is doable.

    • by maxume ( 22995 )

      Ah, but after defeating three increasingly powerful super-enemies, you still have to face the fact that a plodding remake of a bizarro 1970s remake of some show about a trip across the country is getting better ratings.

    • by Boronx ( 228853 )

      We need to know which direction to look for the invasion fleet.

  • missing the point (Score:3, Insightful)

    by confused one ( 671304 ) on Friday October 30, 2009 @06:13PM (#29929499)
    I thing there's a bit of misunderstanding here... Point of fact, it will take several years worth of data to identify a rocky planet in the habitable zone anyway. Why? Because your looking for a planet which you must identify as it makes several passes in front of it's star, a planet whose orbital period is going to be on the order of... a year. (depending on the star's output, of course). So, perhaps they're saying that the earliest they would be able to identify an Earth like planet would be 2011. Yes, I read the article but I think the author may have misunderstood. And let us not forget that this only affects some of the channels.
  • The Kepler Mission is actually doing very well, producing planetary discoveries that will be announced early next year, and expects to meet all its science goals. Data from the low level noise in a few of the 84 channels will be corrected prior to the time that an Earth twin could be found. William Borucki, Kepler Science Principal Investigator

A committee takes root and grows, it flowers, wilts and dies, scattering the seed from which other committees will bloom. -- Parkinson