COLUMN: Star-gazing combines facts, dreams

Reporter's Viewpoint

I often wonder if there is life on other worlds.

I wonder if there are other Earth-like planets with similar beings going through the same trials and tribulations as we humans.

The Earth is a strange thing – too warm or too cold, and humans and animals might become extinct. You need just the right ingredients to make a planet habitable.

With so many inhospitable worlds in our solar system, it sometimes seems a daunting task to find a world where humans could survive. Yet, with such a vast universe, it stands to reason there has to be a number of planets like our own.

It was with great interest that a few weeks ago I stumbled across a website highlighting the NASA Kepler mission. The mission is seeking out Earth-like habitable planets, specifically in the Milky Way galaxy.

The Kepler telescope is part of a spacecraft, following close to Earth’s orbit in the solar system.

The program has identified 1,235 planet candidates, but only 16 have been confirmed. The 16 confirmed planets have been selected based on scientific calculations and assumptions such as orbit, star radiation, size and that the planet has an atmosphere, according to the NASA website http://kepler.nasa.gov.

The candidate planets may not be planets at all, but false positives. The scientists are determining if they are planets by analyzing a large amount of collected data. They observe if an Earth-sized planet is orbiting a star by watching its orbit and seeing if it blocks out the light of the star. However, sometimes a binary star can block out light as well, which means the scientists need to eliminate false candidates with further research.

Not a scientist myself, I can’t understand all of the data they must have to weed through to make a discovery. However, I can’t help but be fascinated by the idea of another Earth-like planet in our galaxy, let alone 16 possibilities.

As a huge science fiction fan I have always dreamed of the day when people would venture out on spacecraft in search of a new world full of possibilities. Would we meet new alien races or find the remains of dead civilizations? The universe has endless possibilities that we have only begun to discover or understand.

The search for habitable planets also raises questions. If we find a planet, will humans one day try to settle there? How will we become stewards of a new world when our own is under such extreme pressure? I can only hope that by the time we develop the technology to go and settle another world we will have learned to take better care of our own.

If people want to learn more about the Kepler mission the website is an excellent source of information. It has great photos, videos and links to scientific information that describes the mission in detail. It also has some interesting artist renditions of the planets that have been confirmed.

People fascinated with the sky – stars, nebula and more – have a unique opportunity in Nanaimo. People can join the Nanaimo Astronomy Society, an organization that consists of amateur and professional astronomers. Members share knowledge and teach each other about the night sky.

The society has a Meade 35 centimetre Schmidt-Cassegraine telescope to observe the stars at its observatory at Vancouver Island University’s G.R. Paine Horticultural Centre on East Wellington Road.

Members gather for night sky observing sessions, telescope making, digital sky photography and learning about astronomy and space exploration. They also host public demonstrations and outreach programs.

Some of the photographs members take through their telescopes blow my mind. Check them out on the astronomy society’s website.

The society is holding an annual general meeting June 25 and always welcomes new members. For more information, please go to www.nanaimoastronomy.com.

reporter3@nanaimobulletin.com