If we were aliens, would we be able to detect Earth, using the technology we have now?
That was one of the questions answered by NASA’s Kepler team consisting of SETI researchers, during an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) event Monday on Reddit Science forum
. “If the aliens on Proxima Centauri had the same technology as us they would be very close to being able to directly image Earth,” Jason Rowe, Kepler mission team member of the SETI Institute answered. “A few research groups, including researchers at NASA-Ames and SETI, are actively developing chronographic and high-resolution technology that will enable direct detection of Earth-like planets around nearby stars.”
Kepler is NASA's first mission to find and confirm small Earth-size planets around other stars in the habitable zone, the range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet.
Reddit has a sub-forum for interviews with volunteers who answer questions about their specific experiences. On one of the “Science AMA Series” sub-forums, the scientists for about two hours were answering questions regarding Kepler, its extended K2 mission and planet-hunting activities overall. “We do this work in order to answer these questions for the general public,” Susan Thompson of the SETI Institute wrote. “By showing us your interest, you help drive us and NASA to continue to do this kind of research.”
To date Kepler has identified more than 4,200 exoplanet candidates and verified nearly 1,000 as bonafide planets. Through Kepler discoveries, planets are now known to be common and diverse, showing the universe hosts a vast range of environments. “The most interesting exoplanet we have found so far is Kepler-186f, the Earth cousin. This planet is just 10% larger than Earth, is in the habitable zone of its star and might have water in liquid form,” SETI’s engineer, Anima Patil-Sabale revealed. “Even though it orbits a M-Dwarf type star, it is a habitable planet that is closest to the Kepler Mission objective of finding an Earth twin.”
After the failure of two of its four reaction wheels following the completion of data collection in its primary mission, the Kepler spacecraft was resuscitated this year and reborn as K2, a mission that extends the Kepler legacy to observations in the ecliptic – the part of the sky that is home to the familiar constellations of the zodiac.
The K2 mission will continue exoplanet discovery, and introduces new scientific observation opportunities to study notable star clusters, young and old stars, active galaxies and supernovae. “Our best guess at the moment is that K2 can keep running until it runs out of fuel which gives us maybe 2-5 years, depending,” SETI Institute scientist, Fergal Mullally noticed.
At the dawn of Kepler planet-hunting era, the scientist also discussed new possibilities to discover extrasolar celestial bodies. “NASA is currently developing an all-sky transit survey mission called TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) that will launch in 2017 to search for Earth's closest cousins,” Jon Jenkins, Kepler mission co-investigator wrote. “The primary goal of this mission is to find at least 50 small planets for which we can get mass measurements and these would then be great planets for follow up and characterization with assets such as James Webb Space Telescope and other large (huge) telescopes that will be available in the near future.”
Exoplanet topics were followed by questions about careers in NASA, SETI research teams. NASA’s co-creator of the education and public outreach program, Alan Gould, admitted that astronomy is not the only career type needed for Kepler or other research teams. Engineering, computer programming, business services, are also needed. But in general, one needs a really solid background in mathematics as well as science, he added.
The NASA Kepler AMA was part of the Bay Area Science Festival, a 10-day celebration of science and technology in the San Francisco Bay Area.