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Editorial: Our window to other worlds


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Posted Online: March 06, 2014, 12:00 am
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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In 2013, NASA's Kepler Space Telescope, the space agency's most sophisticated planet hunter, malfunctioned, putting its mission in jeopardy. NASA is now in the midst of reprogramming Kepler and re-purposing it so that it can continue transmitting in a more limited capacity.

Meanwhile, NASA scientists haven't been sitting around idly singing the blues. They're ecstatic about four years' worth of information that has been salvaged from the Kepler mission. After many months of studying the data and images using a variety of interpretive techniques, NASA is confidently reporting that the population of planets circling 305 relatively nearby stars has jumped by 715. In one fell swoop, this has tripled the number of known planets in the Milky Way.

Our planetary neighbors are an interesting bunch, too. Ninety-five percent of them are smaller than Neptune, which is four times the size of Earth. Only four of the planets are within the habitable zone of their host sun, meaning they could contain liquid water, which is necessary for life as we know it.

They're also bunched close together like balls on a pool table, which is unlike the planets in Earth's solar system. None of these planets look like places where humans might want to relocate someday. Scientists hope that studying these systems will give them insights into the formation of Earth.

Because NASA hasn't had to deal with new data from Kepler since last year, the agency has had time to sift through the information it already gathered. Thank goodness for that.

Scientists are now comfortable with the hypothesis that planets are ubiquitous, since so many have been found in a relatively tiny sliver of space. There could be billions in the Milky Way alone. Perhaps Earth isn't as unique as its inhabitants once thought.

















 



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  Today is Sunday, Sept. 21, the 264th day of 2014. There are 101 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: We hear that Col. Reynolds has employed C.D. Merrill to drill for water to supply the Rock Island Barracks.
1889 -- 125 years ago: Billy Catton, famous billard player, returned to Rock Island with a view to making this city his home in the future.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The belief is growing that a great decisive battle of the World War was being fought at Verdun, a strong fortress of France on the Meuse near the French frontier, according to a London dispatch.
1939 -- 75 years ago: William Stremmel, 91, Rock Island's last Civil War veteran, died.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Workmen of the Midwest Wrecking Co., Clinton, have begun razing the historic old office building of Deere & Co., 1325 3rd Ave., Moline. The site will be used by the Deere Plow Works for its shipping and receiving department.
1989 -- 25 years ago: East Moline developer Jim Massa says the financial package for the proposed $34.5 million Quad City International Motor Speedway is down to making sure "all the i's are dotted and t's are crossed. Finalizing this will give the green light to see if NASCAR and CART, the auto racing sanctioning bodies, approve race dates.






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