Kepler space telescope mission extension proposal

Nov 03, 2011 By Paul Scott Anderson, Universe Today
Artist's conception of the Kepler-16 system, where the planet Kepler-16b orbits two binary stars, much like Tatooine from Star Wars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt

Some potentially good news for exoplanet fans, and Kepler fans in particular – Kepler scientists are asking for a mission extension and seem reasonably confident they will get it. Otherwise, funding is due to run out in November of 2012. It is crucial that Kepler receive renewed funding in order to continue its already incredibly successful search for planets orbiting other stars. Its primary goal — and the holy grail of exoplanet research — is finding worlds that are about the size of Earth, orbiting in the “habitable zone” of stars that are similar to our Sun, where temperatures could allow liquid water on their surfaces.

But finding those ideal smaller planets requires several years of observations, in order for Kepler to confirm a repeated orbit as a planet transits its star. The larger the orbit, the longer the observation time needed to view multilple transits. Most of the planetary candidates found already orbit much closer to their stars, hence taking less time to complete an orbit, and can more easily be detected within the first few years of the mission.

Kepler has already obtained very compelling data on a wide variety of planets since it was launched in 2009, with 1,235 candidates found so far (about 25 of which have been confirmed to date), but further refining of the data will take more time; a few more years would do just fine. The exciting trend has been that smaller, rocky planets appear to be much more common than gas giants; good news for those hoping to finds worlds similar to Earth that could be habitable (or, of course, inhabited!).

It is estimated it would cost about $20 million per year to keep Kepler functioning past 2012, which doesn’t sound too bad considering that about $600 million has already been invested in the mission. NASA’s budget, like everyone else’s, is tight though these days, so it isn’t a done deal yet.

The proposal will be submitted in January, with an answer expected by next April or May.

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User comments : 18

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Pirouette
1 / 5 (2) Nov 03, 2011
Perhaps it is time to ask for qualified volunteers to man the controls for Kepler. Aside from utility bills that must be paid for the privilege of continuing the work, even qualified students with time on their hands might be able to provide the know-how and the powers of observation. Younger people seem to be much more filled with enthusiasm for these projects than the oldsters who may regard it as "old hat". When robots are perfected, they may be able to handle the custodial work for cleaning up labs and offices. After all, an $800 million initial outlay is not chickenfeed.
Nerdyguy
1 / 5 (2) Nov 03, 2011
"...finding worlds that are about the size of Earth, orbiting in the habitable zone of stars that are similar to our Sun"

This is one scientific mission I've always questioned. It's objectives are rather narrow and, while I'd personally love to know about the available Earth analogs in our neighborhood, I fail to see the real relevance when compared to the expense. Perhaps if we had a mechanism allowing us to travel to these planets in a meaningful timeframe.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Nov 04, 2011
Let's worry first about where potential targets are. Then we can worry about how to get there.

The other way around makes little sense.

And what is a 'meaningful timeframe' anyways?
roboferret
5 / 5 (2) Nov 04, 2011
Science is nothing more, or less, than the pursuit of knowledge for it's own sake. Sometimes it has the fortunate side effect of enabling useful new technology or ideas, but it's not a prerequisite. We want to find out about other Earths because we'd really like to know. How we get there is a different problem.
Nerdyguy
1 / 5 (1) Nov 04, 2011
Let's worry first about where potential targets are. Then we can worry about how to get there.

The other way around makes little sense.

And what is a 'meaningful timeframe' anyways?


Meaningful = within the lifetime of anyone alive today. Just as a stab towards a useful definition for this purpose. Of course, since there is no technology even hypothesized outside science fiction that could get another human to even the closest solar system quickly, you could do this exercise all day and it would still come down to a crapshoot.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Nov 04, 2011
To get there it will probably only be meaningful to anyone who actually goes there (and for them the time it takes will be immaterial as we'll either need indefinite hibernation or just artificially breeding the person(s) on the spot when the craft arrives or have an artificial representation which can simply be shut down until it arrives)

'Meaningful' will also be the point in time when it gets back with the data. And how will it be less meaningful if it gets back to someone from a future generation than for someone who is alive today?

What's so special about someone alive today? Or did you mean: Meaningful to _you_.
Nerdyguy
3 / 5 (2) Nov 04, 2011
Science is nothing more, or less, than the pursuit of knowledge for it's own sake. Sometimes it has the fortunate side effect of enabling useful new technology or ideas, but it's not a prerequisite. We want to find out about other Earths because we'd really like to know. How we get there is a different problem.


What rubbish. Since when is science about the pursuit of "knowledge" without any consideration for a return on investment?

There is always a prerequisite, even when it's poorly defined.

Your comments are a reflection of the attitude that is helping the anti-science crowd kill funding for legitimate research.

In a U.S. economic downturn, I would argue that it is even more important to stay focused on tangible goals.
Nerdyguy
1 / 5 (3) Nov 04, 2011
To get there it will probably only be meaningful to anyone who actually goes there (and for them the time it takes will be immaterial as we'll either need indefinite hibernation or just artificially breeding the person(s) on the spot when the craft arrives or have an artificial representation which can simply be shut down until it arrives)

'Meaningful' will also be the point in time when it gets back with the data. And how will it be less meaningful if it gets back to someone from a future generation than for someone who is alive today?

What's so special about someone alive today? Or did you mean: Meaningful to _you_.


You have taken the detour I mentioned towards sci-fi thinking. This is just mental masturbation, meaningless speculation.

Bottom line = the U.S. can't even put a person in space, let alone the next planet down the line.

This research is just more wasteful spending.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Nov 04, 2011
Are you suggesting that all the fundamental research we are doing (which includes ALL of astrophysics) is wasted money? That we shouldn't send any probes to even the planets/moons in this solar system because we currently have no way of getting a person there?
That finding extrasolar planets wasn't a big and important event?

No, these things don't have any fiscal benefits (yet) - but measuring everything against their monetary value is a way to get where the US is now.

But if you want a real positive impact of such surveys: Think of what it did to combat religious dogma - driving it home to some that we may not be so unique.
Nerdyguy
1 / 5 (3) Nov 04, 2011
"Are you suggesting that all the fundamental research we are doing (which includes ALL of astrophysics) is wasted money?" -antialias

You've missed the point. I did not suggest that fundamental research is wasted money. I stated two facts:

1) The vast majority of research supported by federal dollars (U.S.) has an objective in mind and an ROI at least postulated.

2) The program proposed here is of dubious benefit.

And, for the record, yes, I would agree that "finding extrasolar planets" will go down in the record books as relatively unimportant and along the lines of other wasteful programs like SETI.
roboferret
5 / 5 (3) Nov 04, 2011
Bottom line = the U.S. can't even put a person in space, let alone the next planet down the line.


I guess the ROI on human space flight isn't worth the investment. Might as well leave it to the Chinese.

Nobody knows the ROI in science until the results come in, and practical uses become apparent. That could be decades down the road, like relativity and QM.
Sometimes new information IS the ROI. We are a curious animal, and acquiring knowledge is at least as worthwhile as accumulating wealth, people with your attitude is probably why big science projects are leaving the USA. You can sit in the corner and count beans, and leave the rest of us to wonder at the universe, just because its wonderful.
Nerdyguy
1 / 5 (2) Nov 04, 2011
I guess the ROI on human space flight isn't worth the investment. Might as well leave it to the Chinese.


Don't know where you got this idea. We have seen a nice ROI in space research over a period of multiple decades.

Nobody knows the ROI in science until the results come in, and practical uses become apparent. That could be decades down the road, like relativity and QM.


Your response leads me to believe you have little experience in management or administration. You could not be more incorrect. Many times ROI needs to be estimated, sometimes even "guesstimated", but always an attempt is made.

Nerdyguy
1 / 5 (1) Nov 04, 2011
Sometimes new information IS the ROI. We are a curious animal, and acquiring knowledge is at least as worthwhile as accumulating wealth,


Absolutely! Now you're getting in the spirit. In a modern society, some types (but not all) of information may be very valuable.

people with your attitude is probably why big science projects are leaving the USA. You can sit in the corner and count beans, and leave the rest of us to wonder at the universe, just because its wonderful.


You mistake logic and rational thought for mindset and character. I, too, am a dreamer. But not all dreams are worth chasing.
roboferret
5 / 5 (2) Nov 04, 2011
Your response leads me to believe you have little experience in management or administration


Actually, that's what I spend most of my time doing. I take it you have little experience in science (if we are doing condescending insults) , which is why you are taking an admin approach to pure research.

Absolutely! Now you're getting in the spirit. In a modern society, some types (but not all) of information may be very valuable.


Please don't misquote me. I said worthwhile, not valuable. My point is the value in fundemental or "blue-sky" research is not apparent up front by definition, there may not even be one. Do we know what the value of the Higgs boson (if any) is? No. Does that mean we should stop looking? Hell no. Increasing the sum of human knowledge is a valid pursuit in it's own right, there is no profit motive. That is why it tends to be funded by governments and philanthropy. I think you're confusing science with R & D.
Nerdyguy
1 / 5 (3) Nov 05, 2011
@roboferret:

Again, you're off-topic. Do try harder to stick to the point, and the facts.

It's my opinion that this particular line of research is not as worthy of others. In an economy with infinite resources, we could perhaps fund everything. But that is clearly not the case. Your response to my point has been to get far afield, cast aspersions, and generally get snippety. Please don't get your panties in a bunch over me. And let me know if you can come up with some real reasons why this research is important.
roboferret
5 / 5 (1) Nov 06, 2011
Its important so we can fill in some of the blanks in Drakes equation, and get closer to figuring out the amount of life out there. Thats a Big Question, like "how did we get here". I suppose you don't see any value in archaeology and palaeontology, either as they don't produce anything of value by your measure. I don't see where I was snippety or casting aspersions either, I answered your questions honestly and directly. It was you who cast aspersions on my professionalism.
Nerdyguy
1 / 5 (2) Nov 06, 2011
@robo:

Drake's equation = mental masturbation. Not science. I can guess all day about alien life, and sometimes I do. When I read science fiction. And, this makes my point precisely. Whether there is additional life out there at this point is irrelevant. We can have no meaningful communication and learn nothing from such life even if it exists, because of the distances involved.

It is not enough to just have a "cool idea" and then ask taxpayers for billions. Personally, I'd like to see us investigate traveling beyond the speed of light. Because it's cool. But, I have nothing to offer in the way of justification for using taxpayer dollars for this, as I can't really point to even the most remote possibility of a payoff.

antialias_physorg
not rated yet Nov 06, 2011
Increasing the sum of human knowledge is a valid pursuit in it's own right, there is no profit motive.

The past has shown that increasing the sum of human knowledge does produce substantial profit, on average, though. It's also almost impossible to determine beforehand which new nugget of knowledge will produce profit and which one won't.

But Nerdguy has it right about the Drake Equation. It was an agenda for a conference (drawn up in the form of an equation for fun) - not a piece of serious science.