March 5, 2009

Looking Through Kepler's Eyes

Kepler's Field of ViewAll eyes are upon the Kepler Telescope on the night of March 6 as it launches into space. Kepler will serve as our eyes as we scan the heavens for other Earths. But exactly where will our "Keplerian eyes" be looking at?
Kepler will unblinkingly stare at a small patch of sky in the Cygnus constellation (The Swan), with a field of view that is roughly equivalent to two scoops of the Big Dipper.
Now one must ask, Why did the Kepler team choose the Cygnus constellation?
The Kepler team clearly outlines their reason for choosing Cygnus:

"Since transits only last a fraction of a day, all the stars must be monitored continuously, that is, their brightnesses must be measured at least once every few hours. The ability to continuously view the stars being monitored dictates that the field of view (FOV) must never be blocked at any time during the year. Therefore, to avoid the Sun the FOV must be out of the ecliptic plane. The secondary requirement is that the FOV have the largest possible number of stars. This leads to the selection of a region in the Cygnus and Lyra constellations of our Galaxy as shown."

Kepler's TargetA most excellent choice, I say!
The Cygnus constellation lies along the plane of the Milky Way, and looking in that small section of the sky from our location gives a view of a plethora of stars--greater than a hundred thousand of them! And for Kepler who will trail the earth in it's orbit around the sun--the view to this star-studded patch of sky is wide open the whole year round.
But for those earth-bound stargazers who want to look at the patch of sky where Kepler will be staring at, you'll have to wait until around June because the Cygnus constellation will only become visible in the northern skies around that time until around December.

But that makes summer's arrival even more exciting, because that patch of sky will be a welcome target for exogazers who would want to "connect" with the whole essence of Kepler's endeavor in a more personal way by looking towards Kepler's direction. To thoughtfully gaze at that same patch of sky is to capture the essence of man's ancient longing to find his place in this lonely universe.

Is Earth the only bearer of life? If we find an Earth twin, it will give an insight as to our place in the cosmos. And if we find signs of Life, it will serve as a mirror to find out a little more of ourselves. What is Life? What is Man? This ancient query is echoed by the ancient text of the Psalms.

"When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?" - Psalms 8:3

And even in our modern day, depressing as it seems to many, we have not stopped looking to the skies to save us from our own lonesomeness.

"I'm looking to the sky to save me,
Looking for a sign of life,
Looking for something to help me burn out bright
- Foo Fighters (Learn to Fly)

AnkhBut is Kepler looking in the right direction for signs of life? The final insight I will provide might seem to be a mere coincidence, and perhaps symbolic in nature.

Cygnus, The Swan is also home to a prominent asterism called the "Northern Cross". But even more striking is that looking at the Northern Cross from an ancient Egyptian's eyes gives the Ankh symbol, a vessel of Life.

Any good part of the Milky Way may have been a good target but the symbolisms behind Cygnus makes it an even sweeter spot to search for Earth-like planets, and life.

As you can see, the view through Kepler's eyes is rich with Science, Technology, Symbolism, Faith, and Legends--all the stuff of Humanity--because in essence Kepler is actually looking inwards towards the heart and soul of Mankind !

Kepler Website: