At 6pm GMT, NASA is holding what it describes as a “Major press conference”. They have been tight lipped about it’s content and subject matter except to say that it involves a new discovery concerning exoplanets, having placed an embargo on all information relating to the pending release. Exoplanets are those that exist beyond our solar system, orbiting other stars. Unsurprisingly the relevant parts of the internet are buzzing with feverish speculation, especially as the withholding of information has given free reign to the combined imagination of a million or more sky watchers around the world. So what does NASA have to say?
If it involves exoplanets, and the fact that it does is the only information we have, it probably involves the Kepler space telescope. It is with this instrument that NASA have been conducting their search for such planets since 2009. It is specifically designed to search for Earth size planets. In short, it’s spent eight years looking for places in our near universe where life may be thriving. To get an idea of what kind of discovery concerning these other worlds might warrant a major press conference, perhaps some context might be useful, and Kepler has certainly provided us with that. In fact, so much of what the telescope has given us has been fascinating and ground breaking that if NASA are exited about the latest discovery concerning it’s subject matter, it must be with good reason. If it’s out of the ordinary for Kepler, it really is likely to be genuinely extraordinary.
To illustrate why I say this, let’s take a look at a couple of highpoints in the context of recent exoplanet research with which the mission has furnished us. On July 23rd 2015, the Kepler mission discovered their first near Earth size world orbiting in the habitable zone around a star similar to our Sun and in their exuberance gave it the wildly dramatic name, Kepler-452b. This landmark discovery meant that there was no longer any scientific reason to believe that we are alone in the universe. In fact there is every reason to believe that our perceived cosmic solitude was unlikely to reflect reality.
The following year, 2016, things started to get a little more weird. New data, again from Kepler, had astronomers and astrophysicists so perplexed they decided to call in the team from SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial intelligence), because no natural phenomenon could satisfactorily explain what a star they were observing, called KIC8462852, was up to. This charismatically named heavenly body was fluctuating in it’s luminosity. The periodic dimming of a star is normally due to the transit of another object across it’s surface when viewed from our perspective. Indeed, this phenomenon is how the Kepler mission initially discovers exoplanets. Planets orbiting the star cause it to dim as they transit, or pass in front of it. So these are scientists who are very familiar with this occurrence and know very well how it should work. KIC8462852, wasn’t working like that. Because the forces of nature are generally constant, natural things floating around in space tend to do so in a fairly consistent and therefore predictable manner. Whatever was causing this star to vary in brightness was neither consistent nor predictable. Over the course of four years the team had observed that it would occasionally change for a few days but this change followed no natural pattern.
After considerable head scratching and beard tugging the observers were forced into the uncharacteristic conclusion that the likeliest explanation was a synthetic mega-structure, built around the star by an intelligent life form more advanced than our own, to harvest solar power. These are main stream, skeptical scientists whose mantra is the empirical method, saying that the most logical explanation for an observed phenomenon is the activity of extra terrestrial intelligence.
These two discoveries, made over the last two years, were among the most exciting and paradigm shifting, as far as our knowledge of our position in the universe is concerned, for quite some time. Yet, with characteristic level headed calm the scientific community that made them announced them without such dramatic gestures as a “major press conference” preceded by an enigmatic embargo on all information pertaining to the impending announcement. So of what magnitude will be the news released this evening? Bearing in mind that the highest hope of the Kepler mission was to find planets capable of harboring life, I’m guessing that this announcement will take us considerably further along the path toward discovering such life. The question is essentially, just how far? Whilst I’m not whole heartedly expecting a NASA official to stand before the camera and utter the words, “I’d like to introduce you to Tharg, the foreign secretary for Kepler-452b”, I do have a feeling that something quite exciting, even by the standards of space exploration, is about to come out of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.