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NASA Space Science

Kepler Mission Finds 752 Extrasolar Planet Candidates 103

An anonymous reader lets us know about the initial release of data from the Kepler spacecraft, launched in the spring of 2009, which has been hunting extrasolar planets. The instrument has found 752 candidates to examine in its first 43 days of operation. This is exciting news, because even if only half of the possibilities pan out as exoplanets (as the Kepler team expects) the results would still almost double the count of known planets. And some of the new ones could be Earth-sized, or not too much larger. Controversy has erupted however because NASA has decided to allow the Kepler team to withhold 400 of the best candidates for its own examination, releasing about 350 others to the worldwide community. The reasons for this are complicated and the New York Times does a good job of digging into the issue of proprietary vs. public data. first reported two months ago on the decision to hold back some of the data.
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Kepler Mission Finds 752 Extrasolar Planet Candidates

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  • Re:Drake equation? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @09:43AM (#32589866) Homepage

    At least some of the estimates I've seen seem to have a very high degree of "if we could, we would". But look at us, we haven't been to the Moon in decades, we probably could go to Mars at some huge expense, but we don't. Now scale this up to interstellar distances and you're looking at an absurdly expensive project that quite probably never will pay off, and at least with current technology take many thousands of years to do. Of course that time is a blink of an eye on the universal timescale, but as a barrier to actually doing it that's huge. And even a self-sustained colony wouldn't be scaled to launch crafts of its own, perhaps if you had terraforming technology so that in time that colony could become another "earth" they could but that's also stuff of serious science fiction. Otherwise it'll never evolve past the home star and a small circle of colonies.

  • Standard procedure (Score:5, Insightful)

    by goodmanj ( 234846 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @10:32AM (#32590338)

    This is standard operating procedure for major spacecraft missions. Cassini and Galileo missions to Saturn and Jupiter did the same thing. Kepler's choice of the word "proprietary" is unfortunate: Cassini and Galileo used "embargoed", which is less of a Slashdot buzzword.

    To understand why it works this way, you need to realize that your average spacecraft scientist will spend their *entire career* designing and implementing one mission. Two if they're lucky.

    So suppose you've been working on making the Kepler mission a reality since 1990. Every day for 20 years you've spent designing instruments, writing proposals, doing proof-of-concept studies, to make it happen. Then one day, the mission launches, and you release data to the public in realtime. The next day, some random dude like myself hits your website, happens on just the right file, writes a quick note to Nature, and gets the credit for discovering the first Earthlike extrasolar planet. You get a brief mention in the acknowledgements.

    Folks on Slashdot are used to thinking of the value of data as measured in pennies or dollars. This data's value is measured in lifetimes. Without this sort of "embargo" system, no scientist could afford to pursue a multidecadal project, and cool things like Kepler wouldn't happen.

  • Re:Drake equation? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @11:46AM (#32591112) Homepage

    Secondly, the articles I have seen tend to imply that planets are much more plentiful than has been thought, and this is a big problem, because even the post pessimistic attempts at the Drake equation have the galaxy teaming with life. If planets are even more plentiful than previously assumed, then that should equate to even more life, so where is everybody?

    The galaxy could be teeming with life, it could even be teeming with intelligent life, and yet we could be completely oblivious to the fact.

    This is only a shocking and serious problem if you had assumed that intelligent life would inevitably discover a way around the speed of light.

    Think about it -- we're are only just able to identify the existence of planets around other stars, not even ones like ours that are at a comfortable distance from their stars, and still only in a tiny area of the sky. And we can do little more than identify their period and their mass. Actual spectroscopy of exoplanets is at an even more infant stage than simply finding them. The rocky planets we already know of could be teeming with life, and we just have no way of knowing yet!

    So the only way we'd know about some advanced civilization is if they were spamming the galaxy with transmissions and probes, and the wave front/probe passed us during the narrow window during which we've been looking. And look at us -- the amount of radiation we as a civilization are blasting out into space has vastly reduced as we've figured out how to be more efficient, or replaced broadcast transmission with fiber-optic cables and so on. So the brief period of time in which we've been looking would have to coincide (accounting for distance) with the brief period in which they were broadcasting enough for us to see. And they have to have been close enough for us to be able to see. And we have to have noticed.

    Hell, how do we know that an alien probe, launched thousands of years ago, didn't pass through our solar system just last year?

    I'm not about to get all despondent about the Drake Equation based on the logic of "Well why haven't we seen alien life already?" Let's wait until we can do enough research on our own to get even the sketchiest idea of how common life itself is before we start getting worried about why aliens haven't said hello, okay?

  • Re:Data Archives (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Bacon Bits ( 926911 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @01:29PM (#32592254)

    Exactly. It's only fair that the people who worked on the project get the chance to be credited with at least a few of the important discoveries.

    Want first crack at the data? Launch your own satellite. Otherwise get in line.

  • Re:Drake equation? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by BitZtream ( 692029 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @03:46PM (#32594016)

    The reality is ... our radiation is useless for others to detect us.

    By the time any signal from our planet that we generate gets to any other known planet, its completely undetectable in the background noise, even if you KNOW the signal is there and exactly what you're looking for, you still couldn't find it.

It is not for me to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence. -- The Earl of Birkenhead