Will our future include Star Trek? Will there one day be visits to hundreds or thousands of Class-M planets across the galaxy? NASA's latest mission may provide the answer. Spaceship Kepler - equipped with a powerful telescope - is set to launch next month with a familiar sounding 3-1/2 year mission (six months longer than the original Enterprise flew before it was grounded by NBC): to seek out planets that can host life (and civilizations). The cost: a paltry $591 million. The San Francisco Chronicle reported:
"We hope to find hundreds of such planets," said space physicist William J. Borucki, who leads the mission's science team at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View. Finding that many, he said, would increase the odds that life in some form or another exists and evolves on other planets throughout the Milky Way. "If we don't find any, it will mean that a planet like Earth, with its life, must be very rare indeed, and so there will be no 'Star Trek,' " he said.
Of course, we're not quite at the point of seeking out life itself, just the planets that are like Earth where life is possible.
Kepler's orbit will trail Earth's path around the sun as it surveys more than 100,000 stars at distances ranging from 30 to 1,000 light-years in what is essentially a census-taking quest to count the number of Earth-like planets circling suns in orbits neither too close nor too far, too hot nor too cold, for life to exist.
The extraordinarily powerful camera, capable of imaging 100 million stars at once, is so sensitive that it can sense and measure the slight dimming of a target star's light as a planet passes in front it - an event known as a transit.
Compared to a lot of overly bulky and expensive NASA operations, Kepler sounds appealingly inexpensive and science-rich.