365DaysDate: March 1, 2009


Title: Exoplanet Roundup: Kepler’s Planetary Peeking

Podcaster: Davin Flateau

Links:    Davin Flateau’s website, the Perfect Silence:

Description: We’ve found about 300 planets orbiting other stars so far, cataloging exotic species of ice giants, gas giants and hot earths – oh my! NASA’s Kepler mission, slated for a March 6 launch, will stare down more than 100,000 stars for over 3 years to try and glimpse earth-sized planets. In just a few years, we may find out how many earths there really are out there, and how many need financial bailout plans.

Bio: Davin Flateau has been a planetarium director, writer, educator, and large format producer for over 20 years.  He is currently an astrophysics student at the University of Cincinnati.  He hosts the radio show “The Planetarium” about astronomy on the Cincinnati, Ohio airwaves, and is the founder of Aural Moon internet radio, one of the internet’s first radio stations.  His homepage is, and welcomes new Friends at Facebook.

Today’s Sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the American Association of Variable Star Observers, the world’s leader in variable star data and information, bringing professional and amateur astronomers together to observe and analyze variable stars, and promoting research and education using variable star data. Visit the AAVSO on the web at


Music Credits

Matthew McCullough- Hmm

Repose- Turning Point

(Apologies for the popping “P”s!  Had to borrow a strange microphone!)

Hi – this is Davin Flateau from and the University of Cincinnati.

Imagine waking up one morning, and turning your TV  to hear that a new continent had been discovered since you went to bed.  The cable news channels would be all abuzz with the possibilities.  How big is it, and who lives there?  When can we start exploring it?  Can we ship the Jonas Brothers there?

Now imagine that we’ve discovered an entire extra world next to ours that we overlooked.  Multiply that excitement by 340, and we should be going bonkers over every one of the 340 extra solar planets in our galaxy, all found within just the past 14 years.  But nnooooo, we humans are a picky bunch.  We don’t want just any planets – we’re reserving our collective excitement for the earthlike worlds, ones about our size, with water and organic molecules, oh and by the way, we need it to have been incubating for long enough for life to develop.   Out of those 340 planets so far exactly 0 meet those criteria.

Davin’s astronomy axiom #452 states that just about any problem in astronomy can be solved with its own space telescope, and it looks like someone at NASA is finally opening my ecards.  Behold The Kepler mission, slated to launch on March 5, —  a space telescope devoted to finding not, one or two – but hundreds of planets in a patch of sky about as large as your outstretched hand.

Finding planets is a tricky business.  They are much to faint to be seen easily by normal telescopes, and scrutinizing every star for give away signs like wobbling would be impractical.  Davin’s astronomy axiom #453 states that astronomers love doing things the easy way.   I’m glad NASA has also received  my carrier pigeons, because that’s what Kepler is all about.

The Kepler mission will challenge thousands of stars to a staring contest, you know, like the ones you used to have with your siblings when you were younger, and that you have with the cat every once in awhile?  (meow mix song) Now with Kepler, just replace your two eyes with the largest camera ever flown in space – a 96 megapixel monster the size of a large litterbox.  And instead of one cat, you’re now staring down 100,000 cats.  {meow mix sfx: a billion cats).  I just hope there aren’t any supernovae.

With Kepler, we know that some of those cats – I mean, stars will lose the staring contest – they are destined to blink, actually – dim ever so slightly as planets pass in front of them.  Earth-like planets, they may take a year to make an orbit and pass in front of their star, so Kepler and its astronomers will keep taking pictures and staring those same 100,000 stars and comparing them to the ones before – to see how many stars wink.

But every star doesn’t have a planet.   And every star with a planet doesn’t have its planets exactly aligned so that it passes right in front of its star from our point of view.  The chances of that happening are at the most 10%.

So, let’s say you’re looking at a star that’s lucky enough to have a planet that just happens to be aligned right to us.  But a tiny earth-like  planet passing in front of its star doesn’t dim the star very much, and not for very long.   Kepler astronomer Natalie Batalha describes the dimming of starlight by an earthlike planet passing in front of its star as like watching the brightness change in a car headlight from many miles away – as a flea crawled across it.  Now imagine that the flea’s journey only lasted for 12 hours, happening only once a year  – maybe longer – and no one told you when it was going to happen.  This is Davin’s astronomy axiom #454:  All astronomy can be described in terms of improbable animal analogies.

So what are we going to end up with – why should we care about fleas on headlights and staring cats?

Out of the 100,000 stars in Kepler’s view, astronomers expect that they’ll find a few hundred to a few thousand planets, with about 1000 or more planets that are around the size of the earth.  But this is only a statistical guess at this point – the Universe has a long history of pulling the pens out of even the best pocket protectors.

Is this going to be one of those obscure NASA missions that only uber astro nerds will geek out and endlessly twitter about? (I mean, I know I’ll be).  Kepler won’t be releasing any pretty pictures – it’s blurry digital pictures are only good for astronomers counting photons from these distant stars, and it’s devoid of media friendly bouncing airbags or adorable space chimps.  But by knowing how many planets are in this one patch of sky, and what kind of stars in general have planets, we will know – in just 3 short years – how many planets there are in the galaxy, and how many earth-like worlds there are out there.

Let’s pause for a minute here, because I really do want to think about that for a minute.

In a few years, for a few bucks, relatively speaking, we’re going to know how about how many earths there are in the galaxy, something unimaginable 10 years ago.  We will know exactly where to look for the signs of life.  As soon as those worlds are identified, The Kecks, VLTs, the Geminis, and the space telescopes of the world will all swing into action, trying to image and measure the atmosphere of the far away blue marbles.

No doubt radio telescopes like the Very Large Array, Arecibo and the Allen Telescope Array turn their electronic ear toward those new oases in space, listening more carefully than ever for any sign of civilization.  And when we point our fingers to a star, we’ll tell our children that there lies another earth, that we are not alone, one member in a family of many earths, and probably one species in a galactic ecosystem.

And then you can explain to them how this is like hedgehog juggling a bedbug on the hood of a ’74 AMC Gremlin.

Check out the Kepler web site at, and keep your fingers crossed for March 5!  From and the University of Cincinnati, this is Davin Flateau.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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