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Kepler: A Harbinger for Astrobiology

Mercury Spring 2012 Table of Contents

by Trevor Quirk

Student observing through telescope

Planet GJ 667Cc appears as a crescent in this illustration of the GJ 667 triple-star system. The reddish M-class dwarf star GJ 667C appears left of center, while the other stars in the system, a pair of orange K-class dwarfs, are also visible. Image courtesy G. Anglada-Escudé, Celestia.

In March 2009, the Kepler spacecraft blasted into the Cape Canaveral night — struck like a match, blazing white and orange across the sky. It was NASA's first mission entirely dedicated to astrobiology, a science that draws on knowledge from many disciplines to search for alien life. Since reaching its Earth-trailing orbit, Kepler has been sending home data that is inciting dramatic growth in the field. Astrobiology is more active and has more resources than ever, and it has finally begun to take a place on the mantle of legitimate science.

Kepler's primary goal is simple: Determine the prevalence of Earth-like planets in our galaxy. World-class telescopes traditionally facilitate several astronomical projects at a time, but Kepler is one of the simplest in NASA's history — a point-and-shoot operation, aimed along a thin but deep cone of space.

"We didn't know what we were going to find," says Alan Gould, Director of the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley and a Kepler Co-Investigator. "We knew we had a good technique. But we really did not know."

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