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Kepler and the Search for Life
This artist rendition provided by NASA shows the Kepler space telescope. Kepler is designed to search for Earth-like planets in the Milky Way galaxy. The first opportunity to launch the unmanned Kepler space telescope aboard a Delta II rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida Friday March 6, 2009 at 10:48 p.m. EST. (AP)

This artist rendition provided by NASA shows the Kepler space telescope. Kepler is designed to search for Earth-like planets in the Milky Way galaxy. The first opportunity to launch the unmanned Kepler space telescope aboard a Delta II rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida is Friday March 6, 2009 at 10:48 p.m. EST. (AP)

The Kepler space telescope is on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. At 10:49 tonight, it’s scheduled to go up.

Now, rockets go up and rockets come down. Some too early, like the atmospheric satellite that landed in the Antarctic drink last week. But assuming Kepler makes it up, it has a huge story to tell us. Essentially, whether or not we’re alone in the universe.

If Kepler spots a lot more Earth-like planets, odds are it’s a crowded cosmos of life out there. If not, we really are a lonely planet.

This hour, On Point: Is there anybody out there? We’ll talk about the Kepler telescope, its mission, and the ongoing search for life beyond Earth.


From Los Angeles we’re joined by Emily Lakdawalla, correspondent for Planetary.org, where she covers space exploration and space science for the Planetary Society Blog.

From Orlando, Florida, on his way to Cape Canaveral and the launch of the Kepler telescope, is Alan Boss. He’s a member of the Kepler Mission’s science team and an expert on extrasolar planets and planet formation. His new book is “The Crowded Universe: The Search for Living Planets.” (Read an excerpt.)

And joining us from London, Ontario, is Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, which has been searching for extraterrestrial life since 1960. His latest book is “Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” (Read an excerpt.)

More links:

NASA’s Kepler Mission site offers a useful overview, a rich collection of multimedia, and much more.

Here are some of the online videos about the Kepler mission made available by NASA:

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  • Jeff


    Concern over space junk over our heads, but what about the failed CO2 rocket dumped into our ocean. Will NASA clean it up? Does NASA and other nations simply continue to use the ocean as a dumping ground, unwilling or unable to pick up after themselves?

  • Lourdes Cahuich

    Sorry, I didn’t know that at this moment Dr Shostak is on London Ontario

  • Jeff


    When talking with Emily you mentioned an event over Tunguska, Siberia saying it was an asteroid impact.
    As far as I’m aware, the “the jury is still out” on what exactly exploded there… Could have been a comet.

    Good show, however…. Remembering Dr. Carl Sagan and our ‘Pale Blue Dot’

  • JSR

    What about multiple dimensions?

    And the question of whether Newtonian physicals laws apply everywhere.

    And since there is no evidence of an intelligence life dominating the universe, what that tells us about the limits of our ability to harness power and control matter.

  • Dave panzarino

    On Point,

    Great discussion on extraterrestrials. The uses for Pink Floyd’s music are endless!
    No one has yet mentioned the hostile alien scenario. I just watched Speilberg’s new “War of the Worlds.” It was colored in many ways by the stark rationality of life that is truly alien -unconcerned for us. Do we have notions of how to identify hostility from a safe distance? This line of thinking leads to conservative social views such as isolationism so I doubt it hinders the exploratory nature of science -but what if we found alien moss or goo? What kind of apparatus would we have to build to safely examine it?


  • DJ Chesley

    What about the implications on the various religions of the world, that claim earth and humans to be the center of the universe. If many other earth like planets were discovered, especially with signs of life, how would that change the discourse?

  • JSR

    Speed of light barrier! Never can communicate with intelligent life, even if it is out there.

  • http://www.starshipnivan.com Athena Andreadis

    Hello to Seth and a point to make as a biologist who has written extensively on space exploration and extraterrestrial life: Finding life is crucial for biology, regardless of its state of sentience. Existing life on earth arose from a single genesis. Finding one or more independent life geneses will let us discover which requirements for life are universal and which are parochial, which will not only advance our understanding of ourselves and our surroundings but will also help us fine tune our SETI searches.

  • Jeff


    Clearly, Seth and Alan haven’t or won’t considered investigating the continuing phenomenon known as UFOs.
    Somebody get Dr Rudy Schilds at Harvard Astrophysics Center on the phone to share his opinion about the years of accumulated UFO evidence Just look at these years of reports http://www.nicap.org/chrono.htm

    Here comes the little green men jokes

  • Bernard B

    Kind of a weak discussion. I haven’t heard a real discussion of the implications of the Fermi question — why aren’t they here (to simplify it). One major possible implication is that techological civilizations are self terminating before they can become interstellar colonizing. (I suspect that interstellar colonization would be more practical following a transition from wet to solid state life forms — again, the issue of self termination looms large in such speculation).
    One guy mentioned cetaceans in the context of increasing mammalian intelligence since the dinosaurs were wiped out. But cetaceans, working in an aqueous medium (and with no hands, to boot) would have a great deal of trouble building a choo choo train or nuclear sub. It is interesting that dinosaurs, evidently warm blooded, pretty smart, and with hands, never made the transition to progressive technology over a 160 million year span.
    Looking at the narrow range of conditions suitable for carbon/water life, and the number of major catastrophes that have befallen life in the last billion years, I suspect that life isn’t that rare, but that the fancy stuff — dinosaurs, pterodactyls, birds, cetaceans, primates, etc. could turn out to be pretty rare.

  • Charlie Mc

    I am totally supportive of making every effort of which we are capable to attain all the scientific knowledge we can of the entire cosmos, and the speculative goals of knowing as much as we can about causes and effects of the universe. Therefore, “go Keppler, go!”
    But as we look outward as much as we can, we should pay equal attention to looking inward as well. Spirituality has as bad a name as religion to many scientists in modern times. Evidence we have of near death experiences, insights from meditative traditions, witness from spiritual founders and leaders from all the world’s religious traditions are regarded as myths and treated as fiction.
    Yet as we look at the most recent attempts to explain the “big bang” and/or what came “before”, we are presented with the “Myths” of science: “string theory”[having NO width and shorter than measurability, yet "vibrating". In this month's Astronomy magazine, we are confronted with myths about membranes which follow previous "big bangs" and precede subsequent "big bangs", i.e., an infinite series of Universes needing no beginning or end.
    Forgive me for introducing an idea taken from Scripture, but in the New Testament of Christian Scriptures, the earliest Gospel to be written, Mark [ca.65-75ACE]puts on Jesus’ lips a keynote address in which he says, “Change the way you think about reality (“metanoiesete”)for the kingdom of heaven is WITHIN you.” (Mk. 1:17). If a cosmos can arise from a point of no dimensions, then why is the interior “point” so different?

  • patrick

    fascinating show as always…but I can’t help but wonder if we get ahead of ourselves thinking we are a form of inteligent life…our best technologies have always been manipulated to finding more efficient ways or killing eachother and since we can not co-exist with those most like us. How can we possibly expect to bring other beings into the mix, or assume they would even want to correspond with such self destructive creatures as we are..Douglas adams said it best..”if you can’t understand the qustion…you couldn’t possibly understand the answer”
    just a thought…
    thanks Tom

  • JP

    Bernard B,
    I don’t even think “self termination” is necessary to exclude an advanced civ from leaving their home planet.

    Take Earth’s case:

    Things are getting so bad with regard to day to day survival that spending a huge amount of resources and money on interplanetary exploits may prove prohibitive.
    Even if we survive and at some point in the future pool international resources to attempt an interplanetary excursion, a simple accident or unluckky mishap could derail any further attempt from happenning ever again.

    Think about it:

    Say a trillion dollars or more (or the equivalent in today’s wealth)were spent on an attempt to colonize Mars. With all of the problems on Earth, it would take a lot of effort to convince the public that such a project is worth the expense. None-the-less, the project is tried, the colony gets a foothold, and then a massive dust storm dooms the project.
    From that point forward, the expensive failure is forever used as an example of why a second attempt is not worth the expense.

    Each year that passes makes such projects more prohibitively expensive, and meanwhile more and more problems need to be addressed right here on Earth. Any civ anywhere might face the same sort of problem.
    I don’t think we’ll ever leave this little planet for just this reason. We had better just find a way to take care of what we have, and that’s not looking likely either.

  • Scott

    It would be a shame if we actually found life on another planet that was within our reach to explore…Imagine it, a whole new planet to exploit and new species of life to drive into extinction!…and don’t think we are “intelligent” enough not to.

    Good show, Tom!

  • JP

    Even more likely is that mass extinction caused by extra-terrestrial object impacts or tectonic activity prevents advanced civs from evolving on the relatively few inhabitable planets orbiting the relatively few suitable stars… advanced civs may be even more of a longshot than seems probable.

    On Earth, these odds were beat even with massive climate changes occurring from time to time.

    Add to that the problem of finding the right gravity range for varied enough life forms to compete in varied enough ways… a likely pre-requisite for intelligent life to evolve.

    Then figure that no catastrophic stellar events could have occured within a few dozen light years of the planet in question.

    Then avoid the problems of self-defeat discussed above.

    All things considered, it’s no wonder we’ve found no sign of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

  • Tim Wolfe

    Ha! Loved the old Hitchhiker’s radio show theme!

  • http://www.superrelativity.org mmfiore

    We are a group that is challenging the the current paradigm in physics which is Quantum Mechanics and String Theory. There is a new Theory of Everything Breakthrough. It exposes the flaws in both Quantum Theory and String Theory. Please Help us set the physics community back on the right course and prove that Einstein was right! Visit our site The Theory of Super Relativity: Super Relativity

  • steve ehrlich

    It’s ironic that we haven’t discovered any alien lifeforms, even the simplest microbes. Yet we assume that microbial life is common in the universe and it’s no big deal. We’re now only interested in finding more advanced lifeforms than ourselves. What if microbes don’t even exist anywhere in the universe and we are the only planet that has life in an infinite void. That would be the most devastating of worst case scenarios imaginable.

  • steve ehrlich

    I hope Kepler isn’t going to be another one of NASA’s overdramatized missions that comes up empty. Nothing can ever convince NASA scientists that alien life exists. They romanticize with the usual Saganesque cliches of how vast the universe is and that life may be common with 50 billion galaxies containing 50 billion stars each in the known universe. But when it comes to actually finding even a microbe and officially announcing that it’s life, nothing will ever convince them. The whole thing seems like a conspiracy to me, like they don’t want to find life because it would be too easy. Scientists are addicted to suffering and never coming up with breakthroughs that could change the world.

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