National Geographic : 2009 Dec
• walking speed, or about the rate that an infant can crawl; astronomers cannot yet prize out so tiny a signal from the light of a distant star. Another approach is to watch a star for the slight periodic dip in its brightness that will occur should an orbiting planet circle in front of it and block a fraction of its light. At most a tenth of all planetary systems are likely to be oriented so that these mini-eclipses, called transits, are visible from Earth, which means that astronomers may have to monitor many stars patiently to capture just a few transits. The French COROT satellite, now in the third and nal year of its prime mission, has discovered seven transiting exoplanets, one of which is only 70 percent larger than Earth. e United States Kepler sat- ellite is COROT s more ambitious successor. Launched from Cape Canaveral last March, Kepler is essentially just a big digital camera with a .95-meter aperture and a 95-megapixel detector. It makes wide-field pictures every 30 minutes, capturing the light of more than 100,000 stars in a single patch of sky between the bright stars Deneb and Vega. Computers on Earth monitor the brightness of all those stars over time, alerting humans when they detect the slight dimming that could signal the transit of a planet. Because that dimming can be mimicked by other phenomena, such as the pulsations of a variable star or a large sunspot moving across a star s surface, the Kepler scientists won t announce the presence of a planet until they have seen it transit at least three times---a wait that may be only a few days or weeks for a planet rapidly circling close to its star but years for a terrestrial twin. By combining Kepler results with Doppler observations, astronomers ex- pect to determine the diameters and masses of transiting planets. If they manage to discover a rocky planet roughly the size of Earth orbiting in the habitable zone---not so close to the star orbiting their stars at just the right distance--- neither too hot nor too cold---to support life as we know it. No planets quite like our own have yet been found, presumably because they re inconspicuous. To see a planet as small and dim as ours amid the glare of its star is like trying to see a re y in a reworks display; to detect its gravitational in uence on the star is like listen- ing for a cricket in a tornado. Yet by pushing technology to the limits, astronomers are rap- idly approaching the day when they can nd another Earth and interrogate it for signs of life. Only 11 exoplanets, all of them big and bright and conveniently far away from their stars, have as yet had their pictures taken. Most of the others have been detected by using the spectroscopic Doppler technique, in which starlight is ana- lyzed for evidence that the star is being tugged ever so slightly back and forth by the gravita- tional pull of its planets. In recent years astron- omers have re ned the Doppler technique so exquisitely that they can now tell when a star is pulled from its appointed rounds by only one meter a second---about human walking speed. at s su cient to detect a giant planet in a big orbit, or a small one if it s very close to its star, but not an Earth at anything like our Earth s 93-million-mile distance from its star. The Earth tugs the sun around at only one-tenth WE BELIEVE THAT BILLIONS OF SUCH PLANETS MUST EXIST AND THAT THEY HOLD THE PROMISE OF EXPANDING NOT ONLY THE SCOPE OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE BUT ALSO THE RICHNESS OF THE HUMAN IMAGINATION. Veteran stargazer Timothy Ferris writes from his own observatory in California. His new book, e Science of Liberty, will be published in February.