Looking for life

Alumnus Roger Hunter oversees NASA’s quest for life outside our solar system

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Looking  for life

Roger Hunter returned to Athens in March to give a public talk at the UGA observatory and to speak to physics students at North Oconee High School.

Photo by: Dot Paul

Is there life on a planet other than Earth? Roger Hunter (BS ’78) believes so and as manager of the NASA Kepler project, his mission is to find out. “We believe there is intelligent life out there somewhere,” Hunter says without reservation. “We’re not the only solar system in the galaxy. There are others out there.”

Launched on March 6, 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope is a NASA mission to identify and study other solar systems and planets beyond our own. The primary objective is to determine the frequency of Earth-size planets in the habitable zone of sun-like stars in our galaxy.

Just four months into the project, Hunter’s team had identified more than 1,200 planet candidates, among them a handful that exist in a habitable zone, a region where liquid water could exist on the planet’s surface. They had confirmed 15 planets as of early May.

Astronomers, physicists and stargazers have long sought clues about life on other planets. In 1995, scientists began finding planets beyond our solar system. But until recently the technology was not available to explore other galaxies. The Kepler telescope changed that.

Hunter presented Kepler’s findings through slides and video to a captivated North Oconee High School audience.

With a .95-meter diameter photometer, or light meter, Kepler has a large field of view, 105 square degrees. In comparison, the field of view for most telescopes is less than one square degree.

Hunter puts that in terms a layperson can understand. If the telescope was turned around and pointed at Earth, he says, “I could tell you if your porch light was on from 20 million miles.”

“It is the most sensitive telescope we’ve ever built.” And the largest ever launched into deep space beyond Earth’s orbit.

In a March presentation to physics students at North Oconee High School, Hunter described some of the planets the mission has identified. The students sat silently, riveted to photographs Hunter presented showing Kepler 7b, a planet 50 percent larger than Jupiter but only half as massive, making it the least dense planet they’ve found. It is the density of Styrofoam, Hunter tells the class.

Kepler 10b is the smallest planet identified, about 1.4 times the size of Earth. The first rocky planet to be found, it is very hot, registering about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, which is hotter than the lava flows on Earth, Hunter says. Because of that the mission scientists nicknamed it “Planet Vulcan,” after the god of fire in Roman mythology.

It is about 560 light years from our solar system. Hunter puts that in perspective as well. There are 6,000 trillion miles in a light year, he says. Therefore, the light that is reaching us now from the stars around which these planets orbit was emitted when the first Europeans were leaving their continent to look for America.

For Hunter, who grew up in Moultrie, the offer to head the Kepler mission was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics at UGA, and his participation in ROTC during his college years led him into the U.S. Air Force upon graduation. His focus in the military was in global positioning systems, and he spent two years working on satellite communications in the Australian Outback. His training and experience led to jobs at the U.S. Department of Defense and with Boeing before he was tapped for the Kepler project.

As project manager, Hunter oversees a staff based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. But there are several NASA facilities around the world that support the Kepler mission. Data from the telescope are transmitted via a network with satellite dishes in Canberra, Madrid and Goldstone, Calif.. They are collected at the Mission Operations Center in Boulder, Colo. Students from the University of Colorado at Boulder are involved in the data collection there, Hunter says.

The information then goes to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and then on to the Ames Research Center, where it is processed and prepared for distribution to the public. Findings from the first 134 days of observation were announced in February which was earlier than the team had planned. The next big data release is scheduled for summer 2012, but that too may happen earlier.

The project got a lot of attention when it was first announced. The December 2009 National Geographic sported a cover that read, “Are we alone?” Popular Science magazine dubbed the telescope the “Alien hunter.”

It became fodder for comedians like Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” in March 2009 when William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, appeared by satellite on the show.

“Folks, it is crucial that America leads the way in finding habitable planets,” Colbert told the audience. “Personally, I cannot wait to taste Ewo

Hunter says his team has joked about their search as well, wondering what kind of life may exist out there or, worse, what if nothing is found. But he believes that it’s out there and as technology continues to advance, we may one day have the means to go to it.

“In the 1300s and 1400s people thought the Earth was flat, they thought we would never fly, that we would never land on the moon,” he say

“Major technological hurdles would have to be overcome to venture beyond the solar system. I think the sky’s the limit.”

The new findings will reshape the way students learn astronomy, says UGA Assistant Astronomy Professor Inseok Song, who won the 2009 Advancing Science Serving Society’s Newcomb Cleveland Prize for his paper in Science that reported the discovery of the first extra-solar planetary system outside our solar syste

Song’s course, “Finding Life,” always fills during preregistration.

“The possibility of life in other places beyond the Earth keeps the students quite interested,” he says.

To learn more about the Kepler project go to http://kepler.nasa.gov.