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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    The Kepler Spacecraft

    The Kepler spacecraft that launched last Friday could hold the key to answering one of the most fundamental questions that mankind has been wondering about ever since we first gazed up into the universe above: Are we alone?

    The spacecraft contains a telescope that’s purpose is to search for Earth-like worlds circling stars within our galaxy. When the celestial spheres pass in front of their star’s light, the telescope is able to identify them. Recent years have brought a wave of discoveries, and scientists are hopeful that the Kepler mission will continue this trend of exciting finds. Many of the planets discovered are likely uninhabitable gas giants, much like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, within our own solar system. Some recent identifications of rock worlds however, has sparked life into the hope that we will one day soon learn the truth behind our long thought loneliness in the universe.

    New planets, alien civilizations, future homes for humans; all of this might sound like some reefer-induced science fiction story to some, but the reality is that history will look back upon missions such as this and chuckle at how primitive and na’ve their ancestors were. There are hundreds of billions of stars within the Milky Way galaxy itself. Most of the stars observed so far have planets; some (like our own solar system) have many planets. These planets probably have moons as well. When you take all of these factors into account, there are literally trillions of satellites just in our galaxy, all possible candidates for at least some form of primitive life.

    To claim that we are alone in the universe is not only na’ve; it’s unintelligent. There is a romantic appeal to thinking that we have been blessed with a unique blue sphere, floating around in a boundless abyss of chaos, but it’s simply not that simple. Granted, Earth is an incredibly unique world. Our planet is just far away enough from the sun so that our atmosphere absorbs any harmful rays while still letting in life-nourishing light. Planets like Jupiter act like a solar policeman, drawing in many large rocks that could otherwise head on a crash-course with our tiny blue world. Our moon not only provides another shield of protection against possibly deadly meteors but also acts as a gravitational counterweight keeping the Earths tilt in check and giving us the four seasons. We are on a special ball of matter, but how many others elsewhere in the galaxy and in the universe are just as privileged if not more so?

    When you think of the sheer numbers of dozens of spheres orbiting billions of stars within billions of galaxies, the answer is probably a lot. What is most exciting about the Kepler mission is that it will look for these Earth-like planets right at home in our own galaxy. Scientists have only discovered about 300 of these exoplanets so far, so that leaves billions more to still be identified and observed. The Kepler mission hopes to find these planets so that future missions can measure the composition and make up of these possible future human-inhabited worlds. Some of the rock worlds found so far are many times the mass of the Earth, all either too hot or too cold, but again, there’s still billions more to take a closer look at.

    This question of whether or not “we are alone” will likely be answered within the next five years. By 2013, the mission will have identified a myriad of Earth-like planets. The only question remaining then will be are they potential spots for future human colonization or are they already inhabited by our galactic neighbors. Depending the age of the planet and light year distance from us, both scenarios will likely be the case.

    So while it may sound like some harebrained Isaac Asimov story to many Americans (despite the overwhelming evidence and statistical probability suggesting otherwise), remember that we look back on history and chuckle at many of the long and firmly held conventional beliefs of our own ancestors. For thousands of years, people thought the world was flat because of the inability to comprehend such a seemingly simple law that we today know of as “gravity”. It used to be simple logic that the sun, moon, and stars all orbited around the Earth; as we were the irrefutable center of not only our solar system, but of the entire universe. Europeans couldn’t sail around the world until 1492, not because it wasn’t possible, but because they didn’t think it was.

    Today we face a similar challenge to the conventional belief that, we are alone in the universe. The Kepler mission could very well put this issue to rest once and for all. If it does, then what we think about ourselves and the universe we inhabit will fundamentally change forever. Not only will it shatter these perceptions, but also it will ratify what we have subconsciously thought all along. We are special, but we are not the only ones.

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