The endeavour to explore outer space is science news that can be difficult to deal with. There are so many projects going at any one time – none of which seem to have much direct relevance to our lives, and all of which are claiming a new, visionary breakthrough significance – that any single project gets lost amid the cacophony of space missions competing for what little public interest there is. Normally we don’t really buy into the self-proclaimed significance of the space mission, and if we notice it at all, don’t get beyond the sentiment of, “Oh, that’s kind of cool.”

Will ‘Kepler’ change this? Kepler is a NASA telescope and a real breakthrough in our ability to find other earth-like planets in the galaxy. How? Well, the idea is pretty simple: it’s going to watch a whole bunch of stars that are roughly the size of the sun, and hope to see the silhouette of planets that are roughly the size of the earth pass in front of them. This mission faces a range of technical challenges. First, it has to observe the tiniest dip in brightness from a star hundreds of light years away. What comes next is even more astonishing: from analysing the exact nature of the dip in brightness, it can be determined whether the planet has an atmosphere, and what gases it contains. If oxygen or methane are detected, it would be a sure sign of organic processes – life – on the planet.

The Kepler project is an excellent example of science and its monumental capacity to achieve almost inconceivable feats. It’s pretty incredible. Still, the question remains: what drives this kind of exercise? It represents something that’s very exciting: finding an inhabitable planet, or even extra-terrestrial life. Some may argue that expending millions of man-hours and dollars on these concepts whilst poverty and disease are rife on our planet is immoral; others argue that only by advancing all fields of science will we solve these problems. Still, if nothing else, it’s kind of a cool idea.

Tyler Remington Harkness

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