Northern California Science Writers Association

The Hunt for Planets Like Earth

  • Tuesday, June 09, 2009
  • Basque Cultural Center
It's an ancient question: How special is Earth? Astronomers have found nearly 350 planets circling other stars, all bigger than our home world. This size bias is an artifact of the way we've spotted most planets: the whomping big ones tug back and forth on their parent stars, creating a wobble that telescopes can detect. Little planets do the same thing, but far more subtly. So, while our galaxy may be chock-full of rocks like Earth, we just haven't been able to find them yet.

A new NASA mission promises to change that. Called Kepler, in honor of the German astronomer who deciphered the motions of our solar system's planets, the satellite will stare at 100,000 stars for several years to watch for barely perceptible blinks of light -- the shadows of planets crossing in front of the stars. In so doing, Kepler will provide the first statistical measure of Earth's cosmic kin. Astronomers have assumed, hands waving wildly, that perhaps one out of every ten stars hosts an Earth-size planetary companion. But that proportion could be much higher, or much lower. The consequences for our sense of place in the universe are profound.

Our speaker, astronomer Bill Borucki of NASA Ames, is Kepler's principal investigator. He has shepherded the $600 million mission from its conception in a paper he published 25 years ago. Kepler launched successfully on March 6 and has now taken its first images of its field of stars in the constellation Cygnus. Borucki will tell us about the mission's genesis and development, its design, and his hopes for its scientific accomplishments.

6:30 pm No-host happy hour
7:30 pm Dinner
8:30 pm Speaker

Basque Cultural Center, 599 Railroad Avenue, South San Francisco
Information, maps, and directions:

The cost is $28 members/$20 students/$32 non-members. The Basque Cultural Center serves French-accented fare in a large private banquet room. To reserve your spot, please select your entrée choice and pay online.

Entree choices are: Salmon with champagne sauce, Breast of Chicken chasseur or Vegetarian Pasta. All entrees are served with soup, salad, bread and butter, plus ice cream for dessert and coffee. There is a full-service (no-host) bar.

Registration for this dinner is now closed.

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