October 21, 2010

Finding Other Earths: A Lecture by Dr. Jason Steffen

Tonight at Augustana a physicist by the name of Dr. Jason Steffen came to talk to us about the Kepler mission. The mission sent the Kepler spacecraft into an orbit around the sun (not the earth) to take looks at a particular part of space in the search for other earths.

The Kepler telescope is highly sensitive and state-of-the-art. It was only sent up in space in March of 2009, and it has been sending back data ever since. What the Kepler looks for is small dots that move across other stars, or exoplanets. Kepler sends back what it thinks planets are, and we use telescopes and techniques down here to try and rule out false positives.

Dr. Steffen is a smart man, and though he might not have been the best choice for this audience, he got his points across. I personally appreciated his extra information about the math and physics and graphs he had, but many people were getting restless with the intricate explanations.

One thing that is interesting is how long the scientific community takes to interpret results. This lecture given to us by this scientist from FermiLab, which is always on the forefront of new discoveries, only covered information from the first few months to the first year of the mission. I think that it is good that the scientific community takes the time to think about the results before it is released to the public, though it does make me impatient.

Overall, this was a good lecture! I think I learned a lot about the mission and about its importance, but also about its relative difficulty. There is some tough computing being done by the Kepler, our computers and our physicists down here, and I'm glad that we have people working on it! Hopefully future advances will increase the speed with which we can look for earth-like planets. And someday maybe we can find a way to propel ourselves there!

For more information:
Kepler Mission Site
Wikipedia's Page on the Kepler Mission
Dr. Jason Steffen's Webpage