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 Monday, Sept. 1, the 244th day of 2014. There are 121 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: We are informed by J.H. Hull that the reason the street sprinkler was not at work yesterday settling the dust on the streets, was because one of his horses was injured.
1889 -- 125 years ago: Bonnie McGregor, a fleet-footed stallion owned by S.W. Wheelock of this community, covered himself with glory at Lexington, Ky, when he ran a mile in 2:13 1/2. The horse's value was estimated as at least $50,000.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Troops are pouring into Paris to prepare for defense of the city. The German army is reported to be only 60 miles from the capital of France.
1939 -- 75 years ago: The German army has invaded Poland in undeclared warfare. Poland has appealed to Great Britain and France for aid.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Publication of a plant newspaper, the Farmall Works News, has been launched at the Rock Island IHC factory and replaces a managerial newsletter.
1989 -- 25 years ago: Officials predict Monday's Rock Island Labor Parade will be the biggest and best ever. Last minute work continues on floats and costumes for the parade, which steps off a 9:30 a.m.




(More History)