No, this entry has absolutely nothing to do with the old Nickelodeon TV show. It’s just that while doing my edits on the very few photos I took last night, I found that half of them were titled Drake & Josh 1, Drake & Josh 2a, and Drake & Josh 2b.
No, wait. Back up.
(Note: if “Kepler” means nothing to you, go peek at this first: NASA’s Kepler page.)
Last night was a public session during this week’s Kepler Science Conference at NASA-Ames Research Center. Frank Drake—does anybody even faintly interested in extraterrestrial intelligence NOT remember the Drake equation?—was the speaker for a ‘sold-out’ evening at the Conference Center.
With the tiniest bit of encouragement, my husband “Clark” had scored a pair of the free tickets offered to the public by the Ames Events Program. We even managed to arrive early enough to worm our way into decent seats just behind the “reserved for press” row. Just between you and me, acquiring those seats involved summoning the chutzpah to ask a woman who was clearly saving a seat for her husband if she could shift left or right one seat to make room, either by claiming the aisle seat for her husband or dibsing the middle seats. She chose the aisle-seat access. As she moved over, so did the young man next to her, leaving us with one more free seat which was swiftly nabbed by someone in the next wave of arrivals.
So it all works out well. One more person got a nearly-front seat (without having to ask for favors), we started the evening filled with gratitude, and the college student got to sit with David Morrison—NASA astrobiologist and SETI Institute leader—and his wife. (Yes, that’s who the tardy husband was. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I said to Clark. “Well,” he lamely explained. “I don’t see him with his wife at the cafeteria.” ) The student had taken Caltrain all the way from San Francisco and then hiked from the train station to Ames. He was excited to be surrounded by so many astronomers, but instead of being daunted by that, he’d decided to get as many autographs as he could on his printout about the event. Most people he asked for autographs from also gave him business cards and some asked for his name in return. His name is Joshua Caltana.
So now you see where that strand is headed.
Meanwhile, there were a fair number of cell-phone photos being requested in the front-row group. Frank with one Kepler astronomer. Frank with another. A photo of someone taking a photo of Frank with someone. Was it noted that one of the people sitting in the front row a few feet away was Dr. Drake? Oh, to be an official Press Person. They really needed a proper camera with a bounce flash in that light.
A free public talk in the heart of Nerd Country is a strong draw, and traffic was backed up at the gate, we heard. So there was a delaying action. Kepler staff launched a putatively impromptu quiz game, awarding Kepler memorabilia to audience members who had the correct answers to crucial astro-trivia. Alas, I was way too slow to raise my hand on the few I knew, Clark was not interested in playing the game, and Joshua’s answer to one question was just close, not correct. So our Local Group did not win any of the tchotchkes. Oh, well. We didn’t come for prizes. We came to hear “Frank”.
But finally, they tuned up the computer with Drake’s slides and let him speak. He had a bit of a scratchy throat to cope with, and the Mac was balky about launching the animations on his slides, but he soldiered on with all those rapt faces in attendance.
So yes, I’m going to make you endure a summary of a great talk before looping back to Drake & Josh. Or you can be lazy and scroll to the end. Bear with me. There will be cool links.
So, the talk was entitled “Kepler and Its Impact on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” But Drake put it a little more strongly. Kepler, he said, is one of the “most important events in the history of science.” Not only has the Kepler team’s search for habitable planets spotted thousands of planets orbiting stars in the small portion of sky selected for study, their data are useful for sorting through those finds for planets which might fall in the habitable zone. The sheer impact of numbers is amplified when we realize that Kepler isn’t looking everywhere and that the Kepler results strongly suggest that there are many many more planets out there that the current tools can’t locate just yet.
For one thing, Kepler’s detection technique relies on occultation—spotting a planet passing in front of its star. Only planets fairly close to a star are likely to be sighted this way, because the farther out a planet’s orbit lies, the more likely that a slight tilt of its orbit relative to our plane of view would make the planet pass ‘above’ or ‘below’ the star—making it invisible to us. For example, even just at Earth’s orbital distance, 99% of such planets would be missed.
But for now, the numbers are big enough to give us plenty of data to study and inspire us. Drake’s presentation included a snippet of the Kepler Orrery in which all the planets discovered as of early 2011 dance their way through Kepler’s mission period. If you’re not too hypnotized by that, you can try Fabryky’s 2012 updated edition.
Kepler results include information about the planets’ orbital distances, and the stars’ characteristics are well-known, so the likelihood of there being planets in their respective habitable zones is becoming accessible. For instance, with a cooler star, the habitable zone is close. But what affects the habitable zone other than the star and the orbital distance? From studying our own solar system, even just our own planet, we know that the characteristics of the planet affect habitability.
So, then Drake moved into Phase II of his talk, which he later revealed should have its own title
Everything I Ever Needed to Know
I Learned in
The Solar System
Aiming for that laugh, he led us on a tour of our own locale. On Planet Earth, habitability changes markedly if we go up in altitude or down into the ocean. So the topography and water on a planet affect its habitability. In the deep atmospheres of the outer planets, it’s been proven that there are altitudes at which temperatures—even so distant from the sun—are about what they are on the Earth’s surface. He shared an image by Lynette Cook illustrating Carl Sagan’s notion of “floaters” evolving and living in the clouds of Jupiter. Comb jellies accustomed to the arctic seas of Earth—or alien life evolved to a similar design—would be well-suited to the deep, dark ocean beneath Europa’s insulating icy crust. Our focus on the traditional Habitable Zone defined by certain distances from each star, based on stellar conditions, means that these alternate conditions for life finally need to get some attention so that the Habitable Zone can be redefined to include these non-Earthly, yet potentially life-supporting situations. He foresees the narrow band illustrated above being widened to include most of the outer planets…and even those wandering ‘rogue’ planets warmed by nuclear decay.
Next, Drake turned to the conundrum of M-type stars and their planets. He’s now convinced—thanks to Kepler—that there are likely to be planets around most of these stars as well—and those cool M-types (more familiarly known as Red Dwarfs) are far and away the most common stars. There are more of them than of all the other star types combined. Until recently, most astronomers were convinced that a planet anywhere in the narrow old-style Habitable Zone of an M-Type would be so close that it would be tidally locked—with one face permanently facing sunward, dooming the planet to be boiling on one side and frozen on the other. But those convictions are faltering in the face of new understandings about how orbital eccentricities—such as that of our own planet Mercury—can prevent tidal locking and instead force a planet into a resonance pattern. (Is this breaking news—did you still think Mercury keeps one face to the sun? Take a break with Universe Today’s article on resonance.)
Even for a planet that ‘succeeds’ in achieving a tidal lock, atmospheric scientists have decided (provided the planet does have an atmosphere), that mixing by the currents of gas moving over the surface, driven by the heat of a star, would more or less normalize the planet’s temperature, establishing stable conditions in a range of habitation zones. Drake mused that residents of such a predictable planet would consider it nothing more than “wretched circumstances” to endure life on a rock which rotates constantly and varies its temperature patterns hourly, daily, and seasonally.
Drake never directly brought his famous equation into his talk. But one critical factor is the length of time that a civilization might be communicating—the likelihood of our finding one another falls if our conversational eras fail to overlap sufficiently. However, he reported “good news for people who afraid that we have been advertising our presence” and are worried about aliens being “about to invade.” Our own passive “communication” to the Universe has been dropping off precipitously as our use of technology and energy has shifted. We used to beam many megawatts of television broadcasts into space. No more—we’re going with digital, satellite, cable TV now, meaning thousands of times less energy expended accidentally broadcasting to the stellar neighborhood. Soon, the only signature of our technological civilization to a far-off society could be the lights of our night-lit cities—something we aren’t yet capable of looking for ourselves. A very patient observer might notice our atmosphere heating up over time and deduce that we have been subjecting our planet to global warming.
Drake said he is beginning to feel that it may be our moral obligation to start an intentional broadcast, to try to share what we have learned with unknown aliens in the far-off planetary systems. His reading leads him to believe that altruism is a part of our evolutionary heritage and to hope that evolution elsewhere has instilled enough of that same drive to cooperate so that eventually we may be able to do the one thing that we can do over interstellar distances—talk.
What about the Fermi paradox? Where are those others? One audience member was convinced that visitors have been here already, but Drake sadly told him he’d checked out those same stories when he was younger, too, and was disappointed to find they were all dead ends, that the fantastic accomplishments of early civilizations on Earth didn’t rely on helpful aliens but on ordinary humans performing great feats. Interstellar travel is too expensive, in energy terms, he thinks. When pressed, Drake’s line is that the reason we haven’t seen alien interstellar travellers is that “the only ones who would try are the dumb ones—and they don’t know how.”
So after the Q&A, there was a little bit of meet-and-greet. Yes, I got to shake Drake’s hand and tell him I enjoyed the talk and always like it when I hear something new. He said, “well, I try.” Our new acquaintance, Joshua, roamed the crowd collecting a few new autographs and working up to saying hello to Drake. By that time, he was one of the last well-wishers. Drake was surely pining for dinner (his companions were already talking about food), but he listened to this young student, gave his autograph, and then instead of grabbing his bag and dashing away, he stood up and chatted with him for a few minutes. Ergo: Drake & Josh 1, 2a, and 2b:
Coda: Clark was starved, I was hungry. So we went in search of dinner. We randomly selected an open restaurant, placed our orders. And then Frank Drake and his entourage arrived. (Well, is 2 people an entourage? Let’s just say yes.) So I conclude my report with a mention that Frank Drake finished his long day of Keplering with an omelet plate at Crepevine. I hope he survived—the portions there are well on the way to having detectable gravitational effects.