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In a galaxy far, far away

May 3, 2012

Category: A Closer Look

It’s hard to believe that only a couple decades ago, the existence of planets beyond our solar system was just a theory. Today, the discovery of hundreds of planets orbiting other stars has captivated the entire world—and scientists are just beginning to answer the age-old question: could there be life on other planets?

A pair of San Diego State astronomy professors are part of the NASA Kepler Mission leading the effort to find out, and the two have already made some groundbreaking discoveries.

As part of the Kepler Science Team, SDSU professors William Welsh and Jerome Orosz are analyzing data gathered from the Kepler satellite. The satellite was launched in 2009 to survey a portion of the Milky Way galaxy for Earth-like planets that have a greater potential to sustain life.

In the process of poring through Kepler observation data, Welsh and Orosz discovered something a little different: two planets orbiting binary stars. They have two suns in their skies, reminiscent of the fictional planet Tatooine from “Star Wars.”

Although not quite Earth-like, these planets were the first of their kind to be discovered. The discovery turned science fiction into fact – and the only stand-alone astronomy department in the California State University system was recognized throughout the world for its astronomical contributions.

For the Kepler Mission, fantastic discoveries like Welsh and Orosz’s are just icing on the cake. The mission is successfully serving its purpose to find planets like our own. Out of the more than 2,000 discovered planets currently awaiting NASA confirmation, a handful of them are Earth-like. Welsh says that’s just the beginning.

“Kepler gives us access to 150,000 stars. All could potentially have planets, so the research opportunities are endless,” Welsh said.

However, Welsh says that finding planets in the habitable zone of their stars, where water and therefore life might exist, is not easy. Astronomers refer to the life-yielding distance from a star as the “Goldilocks Zone,” because the temperature cannot be too hot or cold, but just right to sustain life.

“Also, there are thousands of giant planets, and Earth is relatively small, so finding an earthlike planet is more difficult,” Welsh said. “But it’s possible.”

The Kepler mission has been extended until 2016, so that’s good news for making that possibility a reality.

Meanwhile, SDSU’s Mount Laguna Observatory will soon have the capability to join in the planet pursuit, too. Thanks to the generosity of donors, the program is installing a 50-inch telescope that is powerful enough to search for planets far beyond our solar system.

Nestled in the mountains an hour east of San Diego, the Mount Laguna Observatory is home to one of the most desirable star-gazing locations in the country. Welsh says the coast’s marine layer “traps in” light pollution, making it nearly impossible for Southern Californians to see our stellar night sky. But the Mount Laguna site is located at an elevation above the marine layer, so light pollution is trapped below. The end result is a spectacular view of our galaxy.

The new Philip Claud telescope will modernize the incredible location, which has not seen major equipment updates since the 1970s. The $1.7 million telescope is named after its biggest donor – an avid amateur astronomer and longtime supporter of the SDSU astronomy program.

Welsh says it can also be operated both robotically and remotely, so researchers will have the ability to “log-in” to the telescope thousands of miles away from San Diego.

“The telescope will strengthen our partnerships with institutions such as the National Science Foundation and the Universities of Kansas and Illinois,” Welsh said. “Even more important, more SDSU students, faculty and researchers will have the opportunity to use it, because they can operate it from campus.”

Welsh is excited about the new learning opportunities in store for SDSU’s student astronomers. He also brings this enthusiasm into the classroom. As he continues to work on the Kepler mission, he’s able to share his discoveries, knowledge and experience – inspiring future space pioneers.

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