Kepler has First Light. It is On! Team is a Go! Photons are Arriving!

This provocativly-titled NASA release states "NASA's Kepler Captures First Views of Planet-Hunting Territory", and has a good explanation of Kepler's capabilities. What I wish to tackle is why Kepler matters.

Kepler is a new space telescope with an awesomely wide field of view, seeing a huge 100 square degrees in a single frame, then zooming in closer with two other 'scopes. It is primarily a planet-hunting mission, but there will be much good science coming from Kepler-- some of which we can't even imagine yet.

Kepler zoom-inKepler zoomed-in

In an earlier rant I decried overuse of the term 'first', but first light events are indeed worthy of their name. Rocket science is hard, and every satellite is a tiny bundle of risks tossed into harsh vacuum. You never know whether the instruments will function, and (if you aren't HST) there isn't a handy space engineer able to do repairs.

So first light means either "it worked" or "we're screwed". In the five satellite telescope missions I've worked on, there has always been two tension points. Did it launch, and do we have first light? With my most recent, STEREO, there were actually 16 'first lights', since each of the 2 satellites held 8 detectors. All worked, and our emotions shifted from 'will anything work' fear, to 'we have a mission!', to 'holy cannoli, we're 100%'! Fun excitement.

David Koch, Deputy PI for Kepler, had this apt analogy.  It's "kind of like walking down the aisle".  You are anxious even though you know what will happen.  He's been with 4 missions, each a success, and still first light is an anxious yet confident moment.  He doesn't cross his fingers, as "crossed fingers kind of implies I _hope_ it opens", and these systems are indeed well-built, with redundancy.

Kepler has a very wide field of view, and like all NASA missions, the data quickly goes public. So anyone with interest can repurpose Kepler for their own task. Much as the solar mission SOHO became a great comet-hunter, Kepler will no doubt aid asteroid-hunters, survey fans, tracers of variable stars, and a host of others, professional and amateur. Astronomy remains one of the few sciences where amateurs can and do make significant contributions.

So Kepler has three significant uses from the get-go:

  1. Planet-hunting

  2. Pretty pictures

  3. Unexplored science potential

Which is more informative-- the Kepler picture above, or the statement "The area pictured is 0.2 percent of Kepler's full field of view, and shows hundreds of stars in the constellation Lyra." (NASA caption)? The words carry information and are useful, but they do not capture 'the story' as well as the image. And together, you get both the experiential and the precise.

So images are crucial to astronomy, not just to keep the public interested, but to accurately present the context and meaning of the work in a broad sense. Add in words, and you have a story. Add in science, and you gain meaning.  And, with luck, some Keplerific discoveries.