Tags Posts tagged with "Kepler Mission"

Kepler Mission

Human exploration of Mars won't be easy. Jennifer Stern, a space scientist for NASA and Martian expert, talks about the differences between Earth and Mars during a recent astronomy forum at Southern.

For those of us old enough to remember the Apollo space program of the 1960s and ’70s, the images of man walking on the Moon will forever be ingrained in our memories. It was a time of excitement, accomplishment, wonder and promise. After all, if we could make it to the Moon, then interplanetary travel could not be too far away, right? And Mars would logically be the next stop with astronauts walking on the Red Planet perhaps as soon as 1984 or 1990…but certainly by the turn of the century.

Well, obviously that didn’t happen. The national enthusiasm for the space program seemed to wane throughout the tumultuous 1970s. Budget restrictions limited NASA programs. And let’s face it, in the afterglow of successful missions to the Moon, maybe we underestimated what a similar voyage to Mars would entail.

The truth is, such a manned flight to and back from Mars is a huge undertaking. By comparison, a trip to the Moon is about 240,000 miles in length. A journey to Mars – even when Earth and Mars are in their closest proximity to each other – is about a 35 million-mile expedition. Flying to the Moon took about three days. A human flight to Mars, based on current technology, would take about six months, according to Jennifer Stern, a NASA space scientist who spoke at a recent forum at Southern, “Missions Possible: A Manned Flight to Mars, & Finding ‘New Earths’ in the Milky Way Galaxy.”

The forum examined both the Kepler Mission (the search for Earth-like plants in the Milky Way Galaxy), and what a manned flight to Mars would entail.

Part I of this series focused on the Kepler Mission. Today, we look at a future trip to Mars.

“This (manned flight to Mars) is going to happen in the next 20 years,” Stern said.

She said that while probes of the planet are of great value, it is only through human exploration of the planet that we can fully understand whether life could have existed on Mars, or might currently exist on Mars. “We need boots on the ground,” Stern said. “We need the human cognitive ability to make decisions, to take samples, to put things into context.”

She stressed that human exploration of Mars is a complicated endeavor. She pointed to three major challenges:

  • Getting and landing on Mars. – Mars has a very thin atmosphere, and it is therefore difficult to land large objects on the planet because there isn’t an adequate atmosphere to slow things down.
  • Living in space. – On Earth, people are protected against radiation by a magnetic field. But in space, the human body is exposed to very high doses of radiation. Part of the challenge is to assess how much radiation the human body can tolerate and how that level can be mitigated. Also, because there is no gravity in space, people lose bone density and muscle mass. That has to be addressed, as well.
  • Living on Mars – Scientists must learn how to use the natural resources of Mars to make oxygen, grow food, etc.

The audience at the forum included 650 people – including 425 high school students and 30 middle school kids. It also included 45 or so individuals from nearby senior centers. While there was a contrast in age of the audience, there wasn’t much difference in enthusiasm. Young, middle-aged and old alike made a point of asking questions of the speakers.

Kids growing up in the 1960s and early ’70s were excited about the prospect of going to the Moon. Some of them were in the audience. And watching the engaged high school and college students at the forum, you have to think that some of that enthusiasm will remain when these 15- and 20-year-olds are 30- and 35- and 40-year-olds, about the time that the first rocket to Mars – with humans aboard – is likely to be launched.

Stern said that those currently in high school or college are going to be part of this new mission in some way. She said that while only a small number of people will directly be involved in a Martian trip, many will be involved in the technology associated with it. And she said everyone will benefit from the research that’s done on bone density, radiation and other health and technological matters affiliated with the project. “It’s going to help the quality of life on Earth,” she said. “It’s going to help keep us strong as we age.”

And you have to wonder what the kids of the 2030s will be thinking when they see astronauts take those first steps in the Red Planet. Will they view that milestone the way that kids of the 1960s viewed Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin walking on the Moon?

Time will tell, of course. But if the enthusiasm displayed by the kids of 2015 is any indication, it appears to be a likely prospect.

The high schools attending the forum were:

  • Abbott Tech (Danbury)
  • Amity (Woodbridge)
  • Berlin
  • Derby
  • East Haven
  • Haddam-Killingworth (Higganum)
  • Hand (Madison)
  • Hillhouse (New Haven)
  • Lyman Hall (Wallingford)
  • Maloney (Meriden)
  • Morgan (Clinton)
  • Newtown
  • North Haven
  • Stratford

The audience also included middle school students from the Columbus Family Academy in New Haven;  senior center organizations from Branford, Guilford and New Haven; members of Southern’s campus community and folks from the general public.

Steve Howell, project scientist for NASA's Kepler Mission, talks about how planets need to be in a 'habitable zone' to have a significant chance of harboring life. He discussed the Kepler Mission during a recent astronomy forum at Southern.

The question of whether we are alone in the universe has fascinated scientists and non-scientists alike for centuries.

While it’s true that speculation about intelligent beings inhabiting other planets has been fodder for science fiction, serious scientists also are eager to find out the answer to that age-old question. And the Kepler Mission is a first step — albeit a small one — toward finding the answer.

Steve Howell, project scientist for Kepler, was the keynote speaker during a Nov. 16 forum at Southern called, “Missions Possible: A Manned Flight to Mars, & Finding ‘New Earths’ in the Milky Way Galaxy.” He spoke about the conditions needed to maximize a planet’s ability to sustain life — such as being in the “Goldilocks Zone,” an area that is neither too close nor too far away from its sun.

The forum, held at Southern’s Lyman Center for the Performing Arts, attracted about 650 people, including about 425 high school students from 14 schools. Also in attendance were about 30 middle school students, 45 seniors from area senior centers and members of the general public, in addition to Southern students and faculty.

Howell and other speakers during the forum were asked by the audience whether they believe there is life on other planets — beyond microbes.

“It’s unknown,” said Elliott Horch, professor of physics at Southern. But Horch hinted that it certainly is possible given the vast number of planets that exist in our own galaxy, let alone the universe.

Howell noted the two planets believed to have the best chance of harboring life are Kepler-452(b) — which has been labeled as “Earth’s larger and older cousin,” and Kepler-186(f). It’s sun is similar to our own and the planet is believed to be in the habitable zone. But he cautioned that 452(b) is 1.7 times the size of Earth, and therefore it may well have a dense atmosphere and be more akin to a Neptune-like planet.

On the other hand, Kepler-186(f) is very similar in size to Earth, but it orbits a much cooler star than our Sun, and therefore may not be able to harbor life.

Howell added that there are other planets that Kepler has identified that could harbor life. And the project continues to find new candidates all the time.

Meanwhile, there has been much buzz in recent months about Mars — such as the discovery of liquid water on the planet. Jennifer Stern, a NASA space scientist who is an expert on Mars, also spoke at the forum. She discussed what life is like on the Red Planet and some of the challenges involved in a future manned flight to the Red Planet.

The program also included a panel discussion that included Elliott; Jim Fullmer, associate professor of earth science at Southern; and Tabetha Boyajian, a post-doctoral fellow at Yale and member of the citizen astronomy organization, “Planet Hunters.”

Elliott Horch (center) makes a point during the recent astronomy forum at Southern. Also pictured are (from left): Steve Howell, project scientist for NASA's Kepler Mission; Tabetha Boyajian, a post-doctoral fellow at Yale University; Jim Fullmer, associate professor of earth science at Southern; and Jennifer Stern, a NASA space scientist and expert  on Mars.
Elliott Horch (center) makes a point during the recent astronomy forum at Southern. Also pictured are (from left): Steve Howell, project scientist for NASA’s Kepler Mission; Tabetha Boyajian, a post-doctoral fellow at Yale University; Jim Fullmer, associate professor of earth science at Southern; and Jennifer Stern, a NASA space scientist and expert on Mars.

Coming soon: Talking About Mars

Astronomy Forum: Exploring Our Place in Space

Two of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by NASA — the human exploration of Mars and the search for Earth-like planets outside the solar system — will be the subject of a Nov. 16 forum at Southern.

The program, “Missions Possible: A Manned Flight to Mars; Finding ‘New Earths’ in the Milky Way Galaxy,” is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at SCSU’s Lyman Center for the Performing Arts. The event is free and open to the public.

The Kepler Mission has identified more than 1,000 planets that are in a “habitable zone,” – an area in which their orbits are neither too close nor too far away from their suns to support life. Most recently, a planet 1,400 light years away called Kepler 452(b) shows the most promise to date of being able to sustain life. The planet has been dubbed “Earth’s older, larger cousin.”

Steve Howell, project scientist for Kepler, will be the keynote speaker. Howell is involved in NASA educational outreach programs and specializes in research on variable and binary stars. He serves on many review panels and was most recently a member of the National Academy of Sciences panel on NASA’s Constellation system.

Mars opportunityMeanwhile, plans are being developed for a manned flight to Mars for some time in the next two decades. While a manned landing is challenging, the development of a reliable return flight is a more difficult technological hurdle. The colonization of the Red Planet is also being considered by some, but would require means to deal with the planet’s thin atmosphere, lack of oxygen and barren cold weather.

Jennifer Stern, a space scientist for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, will speak about the plausibility of human exploration of Mars, as well as what the recent discovery of water on the planet suggests for the possibility of life. She is a member of the science team for the Mars Science Laboratory Rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in August 2012.

A panel discussion will follow the two main speakers, and will include: Elliott Horch, SCSU professor of physics; Jim Fullmer, SCSU associate professor of earth science; and Tabetha Boyajian, post-doctoral fellow at Yale University and a member of the citizen astronomy organization, “Planet Hunters.”

Horch, a noted astrophysicist, has developed an instrument for the National Science Foundation that is used on telescopes to dramatically improve the clarity of cosmic images and has been used as part of the Kepler Mission. Fullmer is a veteran astronomer whose expertise includes understanding the weather on celestial bodies, such as Mars. And Boyajian is the lead author of a recent article published in a scientific journal about the lack of conclusive evidence that a natural cause was responsible for a dimming of light in front of a faraway star. It has led some – including many in the scientific community – to believe the dimming is caused by a superstructure orbiting around that star, perhaps created by an advanced alien civilization, though Boyajian said it is still only a longshot possibility.

A question-and-answer period will conclude the program.

The forum is being sponsored by the SCSU Office of Public Affairs. Last fall, SCSU organized a forum to mark the 50th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and featured keynote speaker Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. National Security Council member and diplomat. A program to analyze the impending 2014 mid-term elections also was held last fall.

Other recent programs have included an examination of the situation in Ukraine in April 2014; a look at the Millennial and post-Millennial generations in October 2013; and a preview of the presidential and congressional elections in October 2012, featuring political journalist Erin McPike.

Parking will be available in the Wintergreen Parking Garage on Wintergreen Avenue, next to the Moore Fieldhouse.

For further information about the upcoming forum, please contact Joe Musante, the forum coordinator, at (203) 392-5073, or at musantej1@southernct.edu.


Seven years ago, Elliott Horch finished the development of a telescopic appendage for the National Science Foundation that provided astronomers with stunningly crisp images of outer space. The instrument, called a Differential Speckle Survey Instrument (DSSI), has been used to learn more about binary star systems, and was even used by NASA’s Kepler Mission to look for Earth-like planets in the Milky Way Galaxy.

And now the professor of physics at Southern is at it again – this time to produce a double-barrel telescope that would generate ultra-high resolutions with even more detailed information about celestial bodies. It’s called a portable multi-channel intensity interferometer. Horch says it’s essentially a two-telescope system, where the two scopes are set up far apart, but essentially look at the same target and function as one super telescope.

“With my previous instrument, the DSSI, it was like putting eyeglasses on a telescope,” he says. “This new project will be like remaking the whole eye.”

The NSF awarded Horch a $300,000 grant to create this new telescope, which is expected to be completed in 2016.

Horch says the primary use will be to look at bright, very close binary stars. Binary star systems feature two stars that revolve around each other. Many physicists, including Horch, believe the sun originally may have been a binary star. In essence, the new telescope would potentially help astronomers learn more about our own sun.

“But we also want to use the new device to study the disks of nearby stars and potentially for exoplanet research,” he says. He notes that the telescope would enable astronomers to see distant stars the way we see the sun and the moon now – as round disks, rather than as points.

“If it works well, it could give us the impetus to create similar instruments in the future with even larger separations between the ‘two telescopes.’”

The grant has enabled Horch to hire three Southern students – two undergraduates and a graduate student — to assist him with this project.

“I am very excited to have an opportunity to take part in this project,” says Justin Rupert, who is pursuing an M.S. degree in applied physics. “This really could be groundbreaking work.”

In addition, the grant is providing SCSU with pieces of cutting-edge equipment being used in the university’s new Academic Science and Laboratory Building.

NASA’s Kepler Mission may have found Earth’s ‘older cousin’ some 1,400 light years away. The planet is currently called Kepler 452-b, and scientists are optimistic that it might harbor some forms of life. Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech/T.Pyle

In one of our first posts in Wise Words, we examined the Kepler Mission — a NASA project to search for Earth-like planets in the Milky Way Galaxy outside of our solar system. At the time — two and a half years ago — an estimated 105 planets had been confirmed as orbiting their sun in the “habitable zone,” a distance considered to be neither too close, nor too far, to sustain life.

Today, the Kepler Mission has identified about 1,030 such planets. And the most recent development is the discovery of a planet named Kepler-452b, located some 1,400 light years away, which astronomers say is likely to harbor some forms of life.

The planet has been dubbed as Earth’s cousin because of many similarities, including the apparent ability to host life. Scientists estimate that it is composed of about 60-percent water, comparable to Earth’s 71 percent. It orbits its sun in 385 days, compared with our 365 days. Kepler-452b is about 60-percent larger, but it is far from a massive planet like the outer planets of our own solar system. And it is an “older cousin” to Earth, having existed for about 6 billion years vs. Earth’s 4.5 billion years.

Another similarity is that it orbits only one star, according to Elliott Horch, an astronomer and associate professor of physics at Southern. He has assisted on some of Kepler’s projects.

“We just observed this exoplanet’s host star last week at the Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii,” Horch says. “My colleagues and I were trying to see if there is a close stellar companion in addition to the planet. But like our own solar system, it would appear from our observations that this system has just the one star at the center.”

The observation was made with a telescope that includes a DSSI (Differential Speckle Survey Instrument), a device developed by Horch that sharpens cosmic images many times over. He built it for the National Science Foundation in 2008.

Horch will participate in a panel discussion as part of an astronomy forum planned at Southern on Monday, Nov. 16. The program will examine Kepler, as well as the possibility and challenges associated with a manned mission to Mars. Guest speakers will include Steve Howell, Kepler project scientist, and Jennifer Stern, a space scientist and Martian expert at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. More information about the forum will be forthcoming.

Additional information about the recent discovery can be found in a recent NASA press release.

Nearly half of planets discovered in the Milky Way Galaxy are believed to be part of ‘binary solar systems,’ meaning there are two suns in the solar system. In some cases, these planets orbit both suns. In this photo, two white dwarf stars located about 1,600 light years from Earth orbit each other. Image credit: NASA/Tod Strohmayer (GSFC)/Dana Berry (Chandra X-Ray Observatory)

It turns out that George Lucas might have inadvertently crossed the line between science fiction and science when he created the planet Tatooine in the iconic “Star Wars” saga.

While the concept of a planet orbiting two suns was intended to be fictional, modern astronomy has found that such planets actually do exist in the cosmos.

The Kepler mission – whose aim is to find Earth-like planets in parts of the Milky Way Galaxy – recently discovered that 40 to 50 percent of these bodies are actually part of binary solar systems. In other words, those planets are part of solar systems with two suns, rather than one.

The team of scientists that made this finding was led by Elliott Horch, professor of physics at Southern.

“Most of these planets are probably not like Tatooine, where the planet orbits twin suns that are close together. They generally orbit only one of the two stars, with the second star slowly orbiting the system at a much greater distance,” Horch says.

But Horch concedes that at least a small percentage of the Earth-like planets in these binary solar systems do orbit two suns. In some cases, that could result in planets having constant or near constant daylight.

Nevertheless, even for the large majority of planets that only orbit one of the two suns, their nighttime skies could be brighter than ours.

“This would mean that during the day on the exoplanet, the closer sun would dominate, but at night there would be an especially bright star — a night sun — that hangs in the sky,” Horch says.

If nothing else, it might eliminate the need on these planets for daylight savings time to give children some light while waiting for the school buses in the morning.

Horch developed the Differential Speckle Survey Instrument (DSSI) several years ago for the National Science Foundation. The telescopic device provides astronomers with stunningly crisp images of outer space, and is being used by the Kepler mission.

He is currently developing a portable multi-channel intensity interferometer, which essentially is a double-barrel telescope that would generate ultra-high resolutions with even more detailed information about celestial bodies.

“With my previous instrument, the DSSI, it was like putting eyeglasses on a telescope,” he says. “This new project will be like remaking the whole eye.”

Construction of this new device, like DSSI, is being funded by the NSF.