Overbye on Kepler

Having complained about the lack of recognition for good physical science writing recently, it would be bad form for me not to note Dennis Overbye’s story about the Kepler spacecraft in today’s New York Times:

Presently perched on a Delta 2 rocket at Cape Canaveral is a one-ton spacecraft called Kepler. If all goes well, the rocket will lift off about 10:50 Friday evening on a journey that will eventually propel Kepler into orbit around the Sun. There the spacecraft’s mission will be to discover Earth-like planets in Earth-like places — that is to say, in the not-too-cold, not-too-hot, Goldilocks zones around stars where liquid water can exist.

The job, in short, is to find places where life as we know it is possible.

“It’s not E.T., but it’s E.T.’s home,” said William Borucki, an astronomer at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California, who is the lead scientist on the project. Kepler, named after the German astronomer who in 1609 published laws of planetary motion that now bear his name, will look for tiny variations in starlight caused by planets passing in front of their stars. Dr. Borucki and his colleagues say that Kepler could find dozens of such planets — if they exist. The point is not to find any particular planet — hold off on the covered-wagon spaceships — but to find out just how rare planets like Earth are in the cosmos.

This is the kind of piece I really like: it explains the problem the mission is meant to solve and the basics of the approach clearly and concisely, and does a nice job of putting the whole thing in context. It’s a nice reminder of why Overbye’s one of the best in the business.

It’ll never be honored with inclusion in a Best American anthology, but it’s good stuff. So go read it.


  1. #1 Karen
    March 3, 2009

    Overbye is a terrific science writer. His book “Lonely Hearts of the Universe” is brilliant.

  2. #2 Wilson Fowlie
    March 4, 2009

    Also worth checking out is a Quirks and Quarks interview with one of the scientists in charge, a Dr. David Koch. Dr. Koch initially comes across as a bit of a dweeb – and has a rather unfortunate voice for radio – but reveals a certain sly wit as the interview continues.

  3. #3 andy
    March 4, 2009

    The smallest exoplanet discovered is about three times as massive as the Earth. It is known as MOA-2007-BLG-192-L b, but astronomers don’t know yet whether its home star is real star or a failed star called a brown dwarf.

    So, why exactly do pulsar planets not count in the “smallest exoplanet” stakes?

  4. #4 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 4, 2009

    I told Dennis Overbye on FaceBook that you’d said so, and that I bought the New York Times (whose subscription I’d let lapse to save $$$) in part for his article. He tells me that you made his day!

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