My followers know that I love everything about astronomy- from its history to current and future technological advancements. Those of you who live in the Bay Area (or USA) or are frequent visitors of the area can subscribe to NASA Ames Research Center eNewsletter and be in the loop of current events in this field. This fascinating research center is located in Mountain View, California and you can read up on a blog post of mine HERE.
So it was with extreme excitement that I opened the email announcing their week long focus on NASA’s Kepler and K2 missions in the Bay Area in June 2017. Scattered throughout the Bay Area, the events included community of scientists, media/social talks and even a musical concert.
The Kepler and K2 missions were launched in 2009 with a purpose of finding data to “further our understanding of our place in the universe”. The Kepler space telescope became the first mission of its kind capable of finding Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone or “in the range of distances from a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of a rocky planet”. I learned that in the data collected during the four years of its principal mission, Kepler detected thousands of planets beyond the solar system, called exoplanets, in varying size and orbital distances from their stars. Kepler continues the search for exoplanets and the study of notable star clusters, young and old stars, active galaxies and supernovae.
On Tuesday, June 20th, because of my work in theoretical physics, I was invited to the NASA’S Ames Research Center event: An Evening with the Storytellers and NASA”s Planet-Hunting Kepler Mission. It was a fascinating discussion on the purpose of the Kepler mission and its sociological and cultural impact. Even though I was born way past the 1960’s, I imagine what it was like living in this time when people would get excited about space missions and especially the first moon landing. I wish media and social media focused more on the technological advancements in science and computers than the follies of politicians.
The speakers on the panel were the following:
· Dennis Overbye, senior science reporter at the New York Times
· Nadia Drake, contributing writer at National Geographic
· Michael Lemonick, opinion editor at Scientific American
· Moderated by Michele Johnson, NASA’s Ames Research Center
*You can read more about the speakers and the event HERE.
After brief introductions, the speakers shared their expert opinion about how the mission has helped scientists collect data, helping us understand the universe and possibly find life on other planets. Now, I know science and religion have never “clicked” in the past, but during the discussion I got into thinking. The question whether we are alone that scientists ask is a very existential and spiritual one. Why would we care if there is life on other planets or if there are Earth-like planets if we didn’t wonder or imagine something beyond our spectrum of knowledge? My readers know I am a huge proponent of “science and religion go hand in hand” idea so this event and what was discussed in it was a highly spiritual experience for me. I am sure this question can further evolve to, are there other species who think like us? Or who believe in God like us? And so on. It also made me think how far we have come and how immensely and unimaginably large and unexplored the universe still is.
One of the speakers, Nadia, whose background was in genetics, had a very interesting proposition. She suggests that we divide the data into categories or genomes (or divide exoplanets into categories). I got into thinking, maybe we can divide them by the presence of liquid water, or it’s atmosphere; either way it will help us organize the date in a manner we can find similarities among all Earth-size planets. This will help us in future missions to locate and identify similar exoplanets.
Another idea I had was pretty grand, but I think can help the mission. The Milky Way is a large spiral galaxy. What if the Kepler focused on the center of the galaxy? Or would it be too hot to find Earth-size or even Earth-like planets there? Maybe it’s too hot here and all the oxygen in an exoplanet’s atmosphere in the area burns making Earth-like planets difficult to exist. Then another idea came about. Sun is a medium sized star that is yellow in color. What if we search for different colored stars like red stars or purple stars and see if these Earth-size or eventually Earth-type exoplanets exist there. If they do, we got our work cut out for us. If not, we know in the future to focus on yellow stars and their exoplanets to possibly find life there.
Lastly, one of the senior speakers, Michael had a very visionary part on the panel. He wished there was a way we can improve science literacy. He worries that science journals are densely packed with information that common readers can’t understand or worst read and forget. So he threw the question out there: How can we improve science knowledge and more importantly science literacy? I, being an experienced teacher immediately had a couple of answers. Starting in elementary schools, teachers should expose their students to science texts and how to read and WRITE them. This not only improves reading comprehension, but increases common knowledge as well. Mind or “thinking” maps are a great tool to increase comprehension because they encourage readers to write notes the way their mind works. This also gives these children visual tools of how different non-fiction texts are organized and written and what the similarities are. For those people who want to learn what Thinking Maps are can watch this video HERE.
In the end, I highly recommend for you to visit NASA Ames Research Center. Why? Just because it is a fascinating “world” out there and these people are in the forefront of finding it.