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A Planet for Goldilocks; Kepler’s Search for Potentially Habitable Worlds

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“How many of you have heard of Exoplanets?” asked Dr. Natalie Batalha. “Exoplanets are planets that orbit stars other than our own and right now man is on a quest to find and identify those that have life sustaining environments similar to earth. This mission is currently being carried out by NASA’s Kepler telescope which is actively looking into other systems and sending data back to us about planets in those systems.”

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On the Jan. 4, the Friends of the David M. Brown Arlington Planetarium hosted their first event in 2014. The sole installment for the weekend was a lecture titled “A Planet for Goldilocks; Kepler’s Search for Potentially Habitable Worlds” by Dr. Natalie Batalha, co-investigator of NASA’s Kepler Mission. Dr. Batalha, a research astronomer in the Space Sciences Division of NASA’s Ames Research Center made the trip from California to speak at the Arlington Planetarium, one of the last structures of its kind in the United States.

“Is this program and content suitable for children?” several parents asked upon entry to the David M. Brown Arlington Planetarium. “Dr. Batalha is a Mom herself and the children will be able to follow along,” said Dr. Alice Monet, President of the Friends as she greeted and helped check in attendees.

“We have three road maps for the exploration of life in outer space,” Dr. Batalha said opening up her discussion. “We can explore our own solar system, listen for different signals in outer space as SETI does, and finally we can search for potential life in other systems.”

“When Goldilocks entered into the stranger’s home, she found multiple bowls of porridge as well as chairs and beds. Only one specific bowl of porridge, one chair and one bed fit her just right,” Dr. Batalha said skillfully using the classic children’s fable Goldilocks and the Three Bears to help both the children and adults in the audience understand the updates and scientific data she was about to present from NASA’s Kepler Mission.

“If a planet is too big such as Jupiter or Saturn which we call the Gas Giants, it will contain too many gases at toxic concentrations such as ammonia, helium and hydrogen. If a planet is too small, it won’t have the necessary gravitational field to maintain a breathable atmosphere,” Dr. Batalha continued discussing how planets have to have characteristics that are just right to support life. “Even if a planet is the right size, being too close to its star would make it too hot, and being too far away would make it to be too cold. Think about Goldilocks sitting too close or too far away from a campfire.”

Dr. Batalha went on to discuss how the Kepler telescope orbits our sun, looks into other systems and generates data about planets in those systems based upon changes in the visible light spectrum in detects. Due to her masterful introduction, the data she went on to show the audience was easily understandable to all in the room.

“When Kepler looks at a star, it measures the light intensity from that star and the amount of dimming from those readings allows us to make conclusions about the properties of a star and the planets orbiting it,” Dr. Batalha said showing the audience chromatograms and plots generated from data from the Kepler telescope.

“When we see these dark spots on this spectral read out, it tells us when a planet is passing in front of its star and how long it is taking to complete its orbit.”

Following her lecture, Dr. Batalha took questions from her audience. Keeping with the Friends’ mission to use the Planetarium as a platform for STEM education, several of the young children in the audience were eager to ask questions about the presentation they had just witnessed. The adults had just as many.

The Friends will host special events at the David M. Brown Arlington Planetarium one weekend every month until the end of the school year. For more information, visit their website. The theme of February’s weekend will be Valentine’s Date Night & Climate vs. Weather.

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