Monday, December 7, 2015

What Kepler is Really Telling Us

A couple of days ago, NASA posted an interesting video on the APOD site. Science deals with direct discoveries and NASA's report of the Kepler exoplanet finds are just the straight finds without any link to the larger meaning. If you watch the video, it shows a bunch of the exoplanet system squeezed together with an overlay of our solar system and its planets with the distance of each planet to its star in scale. Give the nature of the Kepler observations and the length of time they have been doing it, there are a few conclusions to be drawn. First, it is only detecting exoplanets in systems where the planet passes in front of the star. That is going to be a fraction of the star systems out there. Second, few of the planets lie far from their parent star. The further planets will have orbits in many Earth years and Kepler hasn't been looking long enough to uncover any more distant planets, unless they just happen to pass in front of the star. Most of the planets detected so far have passed in front of their parent star multiple times, solidifying the results.

The end conclusion to draw from this is that Kepler isn't finding more than a fraction of the planets out there. This galaxy is teeming with planets yet awaiting discovery. Some of them in these very same systems. But even with the fraction so fare discovered, there have been plenty of discoveries to question our theories of planetary formation. Some break the rules. Who knows how many other oddities lie out there.

So for us writers, Kepler isn't limiting, it is freeing. We don't have to be limited to these "close to the star" finds or just to the star system Kepler has shown have planets. Ones that it can't see planets in just means the angle is wrong, not that there are no planets. Other methods of detecting planets will have to be discovered before we need to feel limitations from these discoveries.

The real wonder of Kepler is just how many planets that might support life it has found in such a small search area. And when extrapolate that to the Galaxy and the universe, it is astounding.

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