Most people have been aware during the last few years that a whole slew of “earths” have been found tucked away in other galaxies in the universe. Up until ten years ago, there were not known to be any. Up until a year or so ago, there were just believed to be one or two. Now we have 262 of them identified, plus 2,740 more candidates, a third of them just the size of the earth or up to twice the size of the earth—after all, if they are too big they will make getting around on them difficult—all with mountains and valleys and sunshine and orbits around a sun in the neighborhood that keeps them warm in the summer and cool in the winter.
What most people don’t know is the details of how this great leap forward in the planet count has come about. The answer is that it comes as a result of a remarkable spacecraft called the Kepler, built for the specific purpose of trying to find other planets where life like that on earth might be found, sent up into orbit four years ago aboard a rocket launched from Cape Canaveral. NASA has so far spent $600 million on this project. But it certainly is worth it, considering the results so far and the state of affairs here on earth, with global warming and all.
The intention is obvious. It was, of course, modeled after what happened on Krypton in the early Superman comic books. Krypton, screwed up by the inhabitants there, was about to explode from within. Jor-El, Superman’s father, had the foresight and wherewithal to send the baby Superman off in a rocket ship bound for earth. The rocket leaves Krypton in the nick of time. As it flies off, Krypton explodes.
So how does the Kepler telescope work? It searches the stars in certain universes that are not too near and not too far from earth. It looks, as I said, for planets about our size that seem to be circling around, and then it focuses in on each one, looking for the telltale darkness that comes when the planet repeatedly goes in front of a larger and much brighter object once every year or so. Of course, it cannot describe mountains or waterfalls or lakes or meadows full of flowers or anything.
So there you have it.
Kepler has been out there circling the earth, watching. And if it sees the telltale sign, it marks that planet. If a few months or a year or more later it sees it again, it is confirmed. This is a planet circling a sun. It’s been out there four years. But then, three weeks ago, came big trouble.
Prior to that, Kepler had developed minor trouble. It has four “reaction wheels.” These wheels, controlled from the earth by computer messaging, are what enable the telescope to point at something and stay pointed at it while both it and the telescope move. About a year ago, one of these wheels developed a malfunction and could no longer work.
This was troubling but not catastrophic. The truth is that the telescope can do what it has to do with just three wheels, not four. It had four because scientists thought of that fourth wheel as a sort of insurance. One, any one of them, could fail. With three, they could soldier on. But then came three weeks ago and a second wheel began to fail. Something was preventing it from getting into position promptly. It could still do so, still firm up the focus, but there was a slight delay. When this got worse and it took even longer, NASA made the decision to shut Kepler down to give it a rest. They rested it for a few weeks. But then when they turned it back on, the problem was still there. Detecting that something was wrong, Kepler put itself in “Safe Mode,” and the prognosis is poor.
NASA officials can’t go up there and fix it, of course. But there are still things they can do. Currently they are in the process of writing a program which will get Kepler shaking itself from side to side. The idea is that in a couple more weeks when they get this program done and they get Kepler doing this (like a dog shaking off water), it just might loosen up either one or both of the malfunctioning reaction wheels and get the thing working again.
(Some older people might remember the day when you could fix something, a TV or an outboard motor, by whacking one side of it with the side of your fist a couple of times. Same idea.)
There is not much else NASA can do.
The real issue is that if they do get one or another of these wheels to work, it will once again alert whichever alien on whichever planet we are spying on to action, and still another laser beam will be sent out to whack it again. Who wants these bungling screw-everything-up earthlings spying and plotting a flight there? Nobody.
Fortunately, with the number of light years it might take to get a laser beam here, we might have a window of another year or more to mess around with the Kepler before it goes down again.
Cross your fingers. This is all gonna work out. I hope.