Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Astronomer Leaks Kepler Data in TED Talk

UPDATE (7/29):  It turns out that Sasselov wasn't jumping the gun as much as it seems.  The Kepler team had already released data on  " 706 stars... [which] have exoplanet candidates" in a paper published to on July 14th.  It appears that NASA didn't want to make too big of a deal out of this since they are formally only exoplanet candidates, rather than detections, however Sasselov seems to have done that anyway via this TED talk.  The bottom line is that Sasselov didn't spill the beans, rather it seems that everybody seriously botched the PR on this very exciting peice of science.
[Thanks to Darin for the heads-up]


To borrow a line from the movie Zoolander, extrasolar planets are sooooo hot right now. And right now the hot topic in the field of extrasolar planets is the results from the Kepler Space Telescope, which since March of 2009 has been staring at the same patch of sky continuously, looking for the tell-tale dimming of stars as extrasolar planets pass in front of them. Obviously ground-based telescopes can't do this and Kepler will be the first space-based telescope to do it for large numbers of stars, so it is likely that Kepler will find the first Earth-like extrasolar planets in human history.

The problem is that for an extrasolar observer with an alien version of the Kepler spacecraft to find the Earth, he/she/it would need at least 2 years of data before he/she/it could definitively say that he/she/it had detected our planet because what you really need to see are three dimming events with the time between the 1st and 2nd equal to the time between the 2nd and 3rd. That in and of itself is no big deal - good things come to those who wait. However people are impatient and scientists love it when the public actually cares enough to be impatient. So a week ago one of the very select few astronomers with actual data, Dimitar Sasselov, leaked the initial results in a TED talk. You can see the whole talk below (the kicker comes at roughly the 8:15 mark), but here's what he wasn't supposed to show us:The official count as of today is actually 471, most of which are the size of Saturn or bigger, so Sasselov just indirectly announced that (a) Kepler has found more planets in 18 months that the rest of the astronomical community had in 10 years and (b) most of Kepler's planets are Earth-sized.

Anyone who knows anything about NASA's views on preempting their press conferences knows that Sasselov is going to get a very stern talking to.

Here's the TED talk:


  1. How could he!?

    Kidding. I don't care that it's a leak as long as the "box" was left closed for a sufficient time and the statistics are good. Very cool news!

  2. This stuff is really cool. Oooh, I just thought of a really neat Twilight Zone episode. The Kepler telescope finds an Earth like planet and after years of study we find that it really is Earth... of the past. Woooooo. Curvy space....

  3. Very interesting. It will be interesting to see when this data is released officially. I also wonder what the characteristics of these "earth-like" planets are. What kind of stars do they orbit? How close do they orbit? How are their densities compared to earth? etc... A great taste and something to watch for. Thanks Nick.


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