Are we alone? This simple question comes from the very core of our humanity. Self-awareness sends us to the ends of the Universe looking for answers, hoping for some understanding of our place in a sea of unknowns and our ultimate mortality. Some turn to religion or spirituality to find solace, others search the night sky looking for their own answers. In the vastness of space, many people believe that we are not alone, that on some earth-like planet light-years away there are other, similar creatures or microscopic amoeboid-life floating in an alien ocean. NASA has taken on this very mission, combing the Universe for planets that could harbor life with their Kepler mission.
NASA recently announced the largest discovery of exoplanets to date. 1,284 new planets have met the 99 percent threshold necessary to be considered a planet, 550 of these planets are believed to be small and rocky, and then nine of those are orbiting in the habitable zone around a central star. Meaning the environmental conditions could be ripe to support life as we know it. This increases the count of possibly habitable planets to 21, and more than doubles the exoplanet count to 2,327. This is all thanks to a new automated technique that assigns a planet-hood probability percentage to each Kepler candidate. This facilitates the processing of a large number of candidates at one time and helps identify stars that are home to planets that could contain life. This in turn helps inform future missions to study habitable worlds.
Kepler has done an amazing job of detecting the dips in brightness from a star that characterize transiting planets. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will carry on the Kepler mission when launched in 2018. During its 2 year mission, TESS will monitor more than 200,000 stars and their orbiting bodies, planets that vary from earth-sized to large gas giants. TESS differs from Kepler in that it can look at stars that are 30 to 100 times brighter. Candidate planets discovered by TESS will then be studied by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which launches into space in October of 2018.
Webb is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble provides us with some of the most illuminating and fascinating images of our Universe. Everything we learned from the Hubble mission informed the Webb design. Webb will orbit Earth further out then the Moon, cutting down on atmospheric interference; and it has a much larger mirror focusing on infrared wavelengths, instead of optical, in order to measure more distant objects. I couldn’t be more excited about a telescope, only two and half more years before I can start obsessing over Webb images. Every scientific revelation and developing theory creates a new generation of innovation and discovery. For all we know, we could zero in on a planet just like ours in our lifetime as we continue boldly going where no one has gone before.