Title: A-Hunting We Will Go!
Podcaster: Roz Brown & John Troeltzsch
Organization: Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.
Description: The largest telescope ever built for a NASA mission soared beyond Earth’s orbit on March 7, 2009, looking not for ET, but rather ET’s home. The Kepler mission is hunting for planets in the habitable zone and may confirm the existence of other Earth-size and smaller planets. Or it may not. Either answer will be profound, and a rigorous systems engineering program was needed to address the question.
Bio: Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. supports critical missions of important national agencies such as the Department of Defense, NASA, NOAA, and other U.S. government and commercial entities. The company develops and manufactures spacecraft, advanced instruments and sensors, components, data exploitation systems and RF solutions for strategic, tactical and scientific applications. Roz Brown is the Media Relations Manager for Ball Aerospace. John Troeltzsch is the Ball Aerospace program manager for the Kepler mission.
Today’s sponsor: This episode of 365 Days of Astronomy is sponsored by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, celebrating Five Decades of Training Young Scientists through summer programs. Explore the hidden universe in radio at www.nrao.edu.
Roz Brown: NASA announced last month that the Kepler mission launched earlier this year has found its first extrasolar planet, which demonstrates the telescope’s extraordinary scientific capabilities. As you know, John, Kepler’s principal investigator, Bill Borucki has said that Kepler isn’t hunting for ET, an extraterrestrial, but instead the telescope is hunting for ET’s home. What’s your take on that?
John Troeltzsch: Kepler is going to help us answer one of the oldest questions that mankind has asked, and that is, are we alone? You can’t look up at all those stars or look at the Kepler first light image with four-and-a-half million objects in it, and not wonder is there another Earth out there? So Kepler is the first step in figuring out if there are habitable planets around other stars in our galaxy and I think Kepler is poised to really help us answer that question which is going to fundamentally change the way humankind sees ourselves and our universe.
RB: I know the Kepler mission involved technical challenges in the areas of photometric noise and systematic error reduction, stability, and false-positive rejection. Tell me more about the challenges.
JT: Kepler faced just a whole gambit of technical challenges. We had very large optics, probably the largest optical system we’d ever built at Ball. We had large structures to hold the optics. We had this 95 megapixel camera – nobody had ever tried to do something like that before. We had really incredible requirements on the spacecraft bus to keep us safe, and pointed, and warm, and all those things you need to accomplish the mission. So, each one of those areas had unique challenges. I think about the work we went through to get the optics in house, just tremendous challenges that took years to persevere and get them in. I think about building the camera and the 22,000 parts in that camera and how many struggles and challenges we faced getting it working. From the systems engineering point of view we had over 23,000 requirements that had to be tracked and verified. So there were challenges everywhere you looked on a mission like this.
RB: So, what are the necessary ingredients for that? I know that you develop processes and tools to balance risk, cost, and mission success. Also, Kepler was a collaborative design process and had people working in different geographic locations to eventually bring this to the launch pad. Tell us about the Kepler team.
JT: I think the Kepler team was unique in terms of being able to solve really, really hard problems. As I mentioned communication is necessary and teamwork is necessary but everybody was really committed to Kepler and I think part of that has to do with the science. When you’re working for a greater cause it’s easier to come to work and face these big challenges and persevere over them and we succeeded, that’s the great thing.
RB: Right. And we now know that Kepler was able to observe a planet called HAT-P-7 with enough sensitivity that it has proven to be sensitive-enough to detect alien Earths. So, for the next three-and-a half years it will be staring at a swatch of the sky and we’ll be here on Earth waiting for the next round of data, is that right?
JT: So, the scientists are just ecstatic about Kepler’s performance. We were able to focus the telescope on Kepler better than Hubble. So our pointing and our focus right now is Hubble class. I’ve looked at some of the data and each of these stars has its own story. We may not find planets around every star, but even a star we’re not going to find planets around has its own story. And there’s a lot of very weird stuff out there. The scientists are going to be looking at this for a long time. The light curves show variations in stars that are not obvious at first. And when you sit down and think about what can physically be happening around the star that would cause the light to change the way it’s changing the scientists are really scratching their heads. So like anything that NASA does, especially these astronomical missions, it’s not the questions you ask before launch, it’s the questions that come up as you look at this data. And Kepler’s proving to be right in family with that type of mission at this point.
RB: We have a next-generation space-astronomy mission on orbit. Any predictions?
JT: You answer what you’re going to try answer, or you try to answer the initial questions that you came up with but at the same time you say, what else is out there and how do we answer these questions? How do we put together models that can explain what we’re seeing? Or, maybe what mission should we fly next to go investigate this new thing that we’re seeing?
RB: Finally, Kepler is not an observatory like the Hubble Space Telescope, where hundreds of astronomers and scientists have access to it for their observations. How does Kepler work?
JT: Kepler is a little more focused so the science team is a tighter-knit group but they do make Kepler’s time available to other scientists and those are called general observers. So, someone can propose to go look at a particular star or look at a class of stars for science that’s not directly related to finding planets and that’s going on now.
RB: In only six months, the Kepler photometer has collected data on more than 50,000 stars with more than three years left on its mission. A-hunting we will go! I’m Roz Brown.
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
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