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 Thursday, July 24, the 205th day of 2014. There are 160 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: The Rev. R.J. Humphrey, once a clergyman in this city, was reported killed in a quarrel in New Orleans.
1889 -- 125 years ago: The Rock Island Citizens Improvement Association held a special meeting to consider the proposition of consolidating Rock Island and Moline.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The home of A. Freeman, 806 3rd Ave., was entered by a burglar while a circus parade was in progress and about $100 worth of jewelry and $5 in cash were taken.
1939 -- 75 years ago: The million dollar dredge, Rock Island, of the Rock Island district of United States engineers will be in this area this week to deepen the channel at the site of the new Rock Island-Davenport bridge.
1964 -- 50 years ago: The Argus "walked" to a 13-0 victory over American Container Corporation last night to clinch the championship of Rock Island's A Softball League at Northwest Douglas Park.
1989 -- 25 years ago: The Immediate Care Center emergency medical office at South Park Mall is moving back to United Medical Center on Sept. 1. After nearly six years in operation at the mall, Care Center employees are upset by UMC's decision. The center is used by 700 to 800 people each month.








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