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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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  • Data Archives (Score:5, Informative)

    by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @08:15AM (#32589298) Journal
    Here is the notice they are releasing potential extrasolar planetary data [] and the press release saying that it's data on 156,000 stars []. You can search the data [] or just download the tarfiles [] via anonymous FTP:

    cd /pub/kepler/lightcurves/tarfiles

    If you do a search there appears to be anywhere from half to two thirds of the data that are marked as proprietary data which their search help gives a brief explanation of:

    Clicking on entries in this column will mark the entry for retrieval. To mark all entries, click one of the buttons labelled 'Mark All','Mark public', or 'Mark Proprietary'. (Unmarking all entries can be done the same way using the appropriate button.) For missions with proprietary data, the mark button element will have a yellow background and a '@' symbol to indicate data sets not yet public.

    I think the majority of those that are unreleased are simply Q2 data or later since this data is just from the first 42 days of the mission. What's available as the tar file appears to be all Q0 and Q1 data so I'm not certain if the 400 that are 'censored' are included in that or not. If they are withheld it seems odd that the announcement, release notes and README file make no mention of this. Still, we're talking 12+ GB of compressed data here.

    Overall and despite the reported censoring of the best candidates, I personally applaud their transparency here that surpasses anything another government related organization (or even scientific field for that matter) exhibits. Alright, maybe CERN or the LHC will be as transparent or more transparent but this is still pretty impressive.

    • There is no such thing as "proprietary" data ( or "propriety" data according to the article). Data is just published or unpublished. No one owns it.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by DJRumpy ( 1345787 )

        Who payed for Kepler? This isn't Schrodinger's Cat. Information can most certainly be 'owned', traded, or sold. Got Spam? Exactly...

        If these guys won't release the data due to concerns that they won't spot the next 'earth-like planet' and claim the 'credit', then there are probably thousands who would eagerly take that chance. At this point, it comes down to someone simply evaluating the data. The 'discovery' has already been made in a manner of speaking, so now it's turned into some sort of ugly 'wheres Wa

        • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

          Sorry for the pedantry, but I've seen it too often lately on slashdot and there are a lot of non-English speakers here who will see it and think it's correct. It's spelled "paid", not "payed".

      • There is no such thing as "proprietary" data ( or "propriety" data according to the article). Data is just published or unpublished. No one owns it.

        In return for providing engineers with an excuse to build a spacecraft and collect the data, you get first crack at turning it into useful information. You then "publish" your analysis in the most prestigious journal you can.

      • by j-b0y ( 449975 )

        "proprietary" is just the standard terminology for data that has not entered into the public domain - used to distinguish from "published" in the sense that the data has been analysed and the results published (in a journal etc etc).

        Information may want to be free, but there's plenty of people who want to keep it locked up

    • if china or al qaeda get information about where exoplanets are, its not like bin laden is going to go there to hide. there's little anyone can do about exoplanets right now except look at them, and it will be this way for generations to come

      but if the scientific research were about nanotechnology or particle physics, meanwhile, i would expect everything to be censored, as it should be, even if funded with tax dollars

      • if china or al qaeda get information about where exoplanets are, its not like bin laden is going to go there to hide. there's little anyone can do about exoplanets right now except look at them, and it will be this way for generations to come but if the scientific research were about nanotechnology or particle physics, meanwhile, i would expect everything to be censored, as it should be, even if funded with tax dollars

        Particle physics? Would you expect some Al-Quaida-affiliated dudes with beards and AK-47

    • Re:Data Archives (Score:5, Informative)

      by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <> on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @10:03AM (#32590052) Homepage

      If you do a search there appears to be anywhere from half to two thirds of the data that are marked as proprietary data

      Overall and despite the reported censoring of the best candidates

      It's long been NASA policy that the PI and his team (the guys who've spent the last ___ years or decades bringing the instrument to fruition) get first crack at the data, which usually amounts to six months exclusive access. After that, the data is publicly released.
      So it's neither censorship nor proprietary data in the usual senses either term are used in, so please be a bit careful in choosing your verbiage and making implications.

      • Re:Data Archives (Score:5, Informative)

        by toby34a ( 944439 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @10:27AM (#32590296)
        Mod this guy up. NASA will release the data in its entire form eventually, and in perpetuity once they get the first paper out of it. This is the same whenever NASA puts up a new satellite - they get the data, analyze it, publish the initial results, and release the entire record, for free, for anyone in the world to download. So there's an embargo period- it's not long, and it's not that significant. They are better at putting out free data (as is NOAA/NWS) then anyone else in the world- the Europeans and Chinese are exceptionally hard at getting data out of without paying for it or knowing someone behind the scenes. Anyone can download a GOES image or MODIS image from NOAA or NASA in the span of minutes to hours. It takes days (or months) to get SEVIRI or MERRA imagery from EUMETSAT.
        • NASA will release the data in its entire form eventually, and in perpetuity once they get the first paper out of it.

          Just after they finish up the Capricorn One project data.

      • 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: (Score:3, Informative)

          by BitZtream ( 692029 )

          Lets get one thing straight.


          My tax money (and yours) paid for it and the salaries of everyone who worked on it.

          On that note however, I still think its just fine and dandy that they get the first shot at looking at the data they busted their asses to get, especially since the reality of it is, they probably know at least 100 times more about what they are looking at than anyone on /.

          I'm fine standing at the back of the line since I only paid a few cents to the project (like everyone else)

  • Drake equation? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @08:23AM (#32589338) Homepage

    I'm wondering if all this effort in discovering exoplanets is getting us any closer to a better estimate of the fp (fraction of stars that have planets) factor of the Drake Equation. Obviously, a complete survey of the sky isn't practical, and we know that some exoplanets are going to be undetectable, and it might also be skewed by the scientifically minded looking closer at stars likely to have planets rather than stars unlikely to have planets, but at the same time we have a lot more to go on than we once did.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Kjella ( 173770 )

      Well, from what I've understood it'll always be easier to see planets that are huge and either a short distance from star or in a very elliptical orbit, so they'll be overrepresented. Also those in plane with the star, but that goes for small and big planets alike. But when we get a little more data, we can probably get good estimates by taking say the closest 1000 ly of stars (the most distant detected is already at 21500 ly) where we can see both small and large planets, longer orbital times etc. to get a

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Kepler is designed in such a way to have a similar likelihood to see a large planet and a small planet. It is based on transit based system . ESA has a good article describing it

        but the chance of a large and a small planet passing in front of a sun is approximately the same and when that condition happen kepler has the sensitivity to pick up the difference for many of the close planets. So it should be able to determine fp with more accuracy

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by sznupi ( 719324 )

          It's approximately the same (in the given time of observations) only assuming comparable orbital periods, isn't it?

          In our system that would overrepresent terrestrial planets. Who knows what is the norm... (most extrasolar planets being gas giants orbiting close to their star might be itself a selection bias)

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by farble1670 ( 803356 )

        yes but that's the thing about kepler,

        it's aim is to discover h-congruous planets. kepler doesn't detect the planet, it detects the planet's transit across it's sun. it can find earth-sized planets in this way. they can estimate the size based on change in apparent magnitude.

        also, based on the frequency of transit (kepler makes long-term observations of candidate planets) it can estimate the distance from the star, and based on the type / size of the star, it can figure out if the planet is in the "habitabl

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Zocalo ( 252965 )
      Possibly, but I don't think it's going to help much, at least not just yet. The problem is twofold; firstly the exoplanets found so far are generally inhospitable to all but the most exotic imaginings of what might constitute extra-terrestrial life. 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 mor
      • by sznupi ( 719324 )

        On our planet we have a technological civilisation sort of capable of making contact basically for less than a century. That's practically a rounding error in "life on our planet never advanced above the stage when the only way it makes its presence knows is due to wild transformation of planetary atmosphere"; and we couldn't really detect that yet. Kepler might be a proper start...

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Kjella ( 173770 )

        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 bar

        • Having children does not "pay off" but we do it anyway. Why should spreading to the starts be any different?

      • 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?

        • Not to mention that this other intelligent life may not even find us particularly interesting even if they know about us. We have a tendency to think that any other intelligent life out there will be sort of like us, but with better technology. The probability is that any life out there that is advanced enough to be aware of us, is millions or billions of years past the state we're at. After all, we've only been indistinguishable from lower mammals for several thousand years, and that's only if you look
          • Yeah, there's all kinds of reasons why an alien wouldn't have announced their presence to us in a completely unmissable and unmistakable way. For instance they simply don't care to. Maybe they already know that life in the galaxy is common, and find our particular instance of it a curiosity but noting more, and like you said they see us as basically clever chimps. Maybe they have some kind of Prime Directive and actually try not to make themselves known. Maybe they've studied us to see if we're worth ta

        • On top of all that think about perspective time.

          Assuming no one creates a magic wand that enables FTL travel, you start running into time troubles.

          So considering how vast the universe is, and the time required to send anything (not to mention the resources required to), our entire civilization has been around for what, say 10,000 years for arguments sake. Now consider how long we have had any sort of activity that would be remotely visible from space, pollution, radiation, radio, etc... what *maybe* 100 yea

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by BitZtream ( 692029 )

          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.

        • by Xyrus ( 755017 )

          And then, of course, there is a possibility that they are aware of us and:

          1) Don't care
          2) Are morally repulsed at how easily we seem to engage in mass atrocities against our own species
          3) Want to keep it a surprise when they show up to wipe us out to plunder our natural resources
          4) etc.

          We have a tendency to assume that if there is other intelligent life out there that it would WANT to make itself known to us. That's very egotistical. Given our colorful history, I'm not sure I would want to meet us either.

          • Seriously. I should have said "this is only a problem if you have assumed that intelligent life would inevitably get around the speed of light, and want to announce themselves to us".

            Which are a couple of pretty big assumptions.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Plekto ( 1018050 )

        The answer seems to be that either one or more of the assumptions we are making about values in the Drake equation is wildly out of touch with reality or there is another factor to the equation that we are overlooking.
        Several of the typical assumptions in the Drake equation *are* off by a couple of orders of magnitude. My astronomy class back in the early 90s decided to figure out a more reasonable number and only concentrate on planets that could support any form of life (only variable we were really

    • You want to read this paper: [] (blog post about it: [])

      He does an interesting discussion on how to narrow the search down, although its gets scifi-ish now and then.

    • I'm curious about whether the number of planets of the type that are detectable with current technology can provide us with estimates of total earth-like planets. For instance, if we know that we can only currently detect large mass planet orbiting quickly, and have found that X% of stars seem to have them, what does that imply for small rocky planets that are not close to their stars? As our technology improves and we expand the set of types of planets that we are able to observe, it seems like we should
    • Even if we did know fp, we would still only be taking the Drake equation from 1 known and 6 unknown terms to 2 known and 5 unknown terms. The answer goes from "haven't got a clue" to "pretty much haven't got a clue".
    • Obligatory XKCD: []

  • by tverbeek ( 457094 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @08:32AM (#32589388) Homepage

    "All these worlds are yours, except for this list of 400. Attempt no landings there."

  • by Anonymous Coward

    research because of data access problems (well, and the pay). Senior researchers get
    first crack at the data, then the next level gets access, finally grad students get
    the detritus to pick over. The argument is that that was the reward for all the work
    the senior researchers had to do to get the project funded and underway. Could
    be true I guess.

  • by moondawg14 ( 1058442 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @09:11AM (#32589622)
    ... are belong to us.
  • 752 possible planets! W00t! That's very cool. And the planets with an orbit of well over 1 year are probably not even found, so the number will shoot up even more. Awesome.

    I don't care whether NASA keeps some data for themselves. They don't plan to occupy/invade/colonize anyway (too far away). So, they must simply want to publish the data themselves after looking at it a bit more. Let them. I'm not gonna do it myself anyway.

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      A skilled perl writer with a fast adsl link could link us the 752 entry database.
      Whats the poppler like treats to lights and probings ratio?
  • by Goffee71 ( 628501 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @09:21AM (#32589700) Homepage
    Pretty sure you can't patent a celestial body. Also pretty sure that some idiot will try.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    ...which of the 752 I, as a tax paying American, didn't pay for, and I'll tell you which ones you can keep.

  • Government research (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I work in government research (not NASA, but a different department) and withholding data for a time period (usually 6 months or so) is the norm -- the people who do the research want to receive credit for that research, rather than publishing the data, someone else writing on it and publishing and receiving credit without doing the research.

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Someone else writing on it and getting peer reviewed publishing is kind of like research.
      US tax payers still fund this for all their scientists to drool over.
      Dont worry, soon it will all be secret weaponology work and public Mount Ararat data.
  • We're in the nascent stages of considering what's the next thing to investigate. Granted, we're a HUGE step away from being able to do anything with the data we find (like send a probe, etc.).

    Nevertheless, if you think this ISN'T going to play out *precisely* the same way that the discovery/exploration/exploitation of the New World did (ie entirely based on greed + geopolitics), then I'd love to hear your assumptions about essential changes in human nature since the 16th century.

    • by geekoid ( 135745 )

      for starters, going in and killing natives is not frowned upon; which is a long way from the 16th centuries view of 'kill them heathens'

      Have you noticed anything odd about wars? Fewer and fewer people are killed. whole sale carpet bombing is frowned upon. War is hell, but it is hell for fewer people and less often then much of human history.

      Are there groups still clinger to what they think are the old ways? sure. But overall it's a lot better.

      I think there would be a huge outcry if we sent ships for the pur

      • ...provided that anyone significant heard about it.

        I remember Shell cooperating with the Nigerian Government to eradicate any significant Ogoni opposition to oil exploitation in their tribal lands. This involved killing, kidnapping, rape, torture etc. in the 1990s.

  • 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.

    • Ironically, this is the root argument for patents. It is also one of the few examples where the intended result actually occurs. Six months is a blink of the eye to analyze this kind of data, but it does give a valuable head start. Now if only we could get copyright trimmed down to a reasonable duration (like 20 years).
      On-topic, I agree that the embargo is essential to the overall process and does not harm scientific progress. After the customary 6-month wait, the data had better be released for free.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Most of the previously-discovered exoplanets are Jupiter-sized, and many are in close and/or eccentric orbits which would seem to preclude Earth-like planets. BUT this MIGHT have been due to sampling bias from the methods we'd been using. So this mission was really important to determine if big, disruptive planets in close orbits were the rule (thus making Earth-analogs less common) or an exception that was just easy to detect.

    What this mission seems to show so far is that - at least for very close orbiti

    • But the smallest body in a planetary orbit is only about 1/3 Earth size.

      Aren't a lot of asteroids in planetary orbits?

  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @11:29AM (#32590956)
    Most of these data were just a single transit. Some could have been a non-orbital passing objct, a sunspot, etc.

    It would take 2-3 years to verify an Earth-like planet, so 700 already is amazing.
  • by Hazelfield ( 1557317 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @01:47PM (#32592480)

    I hope more people share my opinion that finding and characterizing exoplanets is THE most exciting scientific field of our time. My elderly astronomy professor at Stockholm University said three years ago that he hoped to live to see the day when they discover alien life the first time.

    His explained that all the evidence is out there - all we need is better instruments. With Kepler we can now find many more planets. If some of them turn out to be of roughly the same size as Earth and in the habitable zone, the next thing to do would be analyzing the atmospheric spectrum of the planet. Presence of free oxygen in such a spectrum would be a VERY strong indication of life. Oxygen is highly reactive and if not for the constant re-supplying of free oxygen by plants, the percentage of free oxygen in the atmosphere would be next to nothing.

    Best thing of all is that the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will be able to measure spectra from exoplanets (maybe just jovian planets though, not sure on the details so someone please enlighten me). This means that with extreme luck, the first discovery of alien life could come as soon as 2014 (not that I actually believe that, but just so you get a sense of the timescale.) Extra-terrestrial life has for a long time had a reputation of being a subject for philosophers and conspiracy theorists, but this isn't sci-fi or some far-flung ideas that will never work - this is real science and we're doing it now.

    The next few decades could very well turn out to be the most exciting years ever in the history of astronomy. I just wish more people could realize how cool this really is.

  • NASA has decided to allow the Kepler team to withhold 400 of the best candidates for its own examination

    This is ridiculous. What are they going to do, if not publicise the information --- go conquer the planets for themselves?

  • How long before one of these candidates gets elected in South Carolina?

  • This will start another trial over hacking and the publics' access to their own data from their own govt. satellites.

Sigmund Freud is alleged to have said that in the last analysis the entire field of psychology may reduce to biological electrochemistry.