Yesterday as I was finishing up my video bemoaning the sad state of American manned spaceflight, I saw a story on this announcement from NASA which seemed to wrench my arm into a hammerlock and forcibly turn me to face the bright side:
NASA Finds Earth-Size Planet Candidates In Habitable Zone, Six Planet System
WASHINGTON — NASA’s Kepler mission has discovered its first Earth-size planet candidates and its first candidates in the habitable zone, a region where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface. Five of the potential planets are near Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of smaller, cooler stars than our sun.
Candidates require follow-up observations to verify they are actual planets. Kepler also found six confirmed planets orbiting a sun-like star, Kepler-11. This is the largest group of transiting planets orbiting a single star yet discovered outside our solar system.
That news is plenty exciting all by itself, but is overshadowed a bit (in my eyes, at least — and the eyes of every other media outlet on Earth, it seems) by what comes next:
The discoveries are part of several hundred new planet candidates identified in new Kepler mission science data, released on Tuesday, Feb. 1. The findings increase the number of planet candidates identified by Kepler to-date to 1,235. Of these, 68 are approximately Earth-size; 288 are super-Earth-size; 662 are Neptune-size; 165 are the size of Jupiter and 19 are larger than Jupiter.
Prior to the launch of the Kepler spacecraft less than two years ago, astronomers had identified 535 extrasolar planets — an astonishing number, considering that the first one wasn’t confirmed until 1992. Now that number stands to triple. Not all of the 1,235 candidates found by Kepler will be confirmed as planets. But most should be.
The immensity of Kepler’s discovery is magnified yet again when you take into account the parameters of its mission and the limitations of its instrument. Kepler is only able to detect planets that transit, or pass in front of their star. How many more planets orbit their suns unnoticed because they don’t happen to pass between the star and us? Also, Kepler is only studying a small region of the sky between the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. The area in which Kepler has found its 1,235 planet candidates is only about 1/400th of the sky.
Our manned space program may be slowly bleeding to death, but unmanned missions like Kepler are continually bringing the wonders of the cosmos right up to our doorstep, showing us the beauty and mystery and majesty of the universe that awaits us, should we ever make it out there to see for ourselves.