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Jewish World Review
Dec. 7, 2011
/ 11 Kislev, 5772
Discoveries go to the core of what makes us humans
This week witnessed the announcement of two extraordinary astronomical discoveries, once again illustrating that we are not even on the cusp of understanding our universe.
NASA announced that its planet-hunting Kepler telescope had found a potentially life-sustaining planet similar to Earth. The planet, Kepler-22b, orbits a star much like the sun; has a year of 290 days, not too far off our own; has a balmy surface temperature of 72 degrees; observers speculate that it is almost the same color as Earth; and has water, although some scientists believe it may have too much water and that the whole planet is covered with it.
The planet is 2.4 times the size of Earth with a possible gas-liquid atmosphere that would make it uninhabitable by earthlings, at least with current technology. Even though Kepler-22b is not the sought-after Earth twin, it is the best candidate yet discovered.
The first extra-solar planet was discovered in 1995, and discoveries slowly picked up after that as detection methods improved. But the real breakthrough came in 2009 with the launch of the Kepler space telescope. Since then, Kepler has identified 2,236 candidate planets, 139 of them potentially habitable. And the Kepler has only just begun searching.
This is vital research, but of the most basic sort. If there is an Earth twin out there, we want to visit it, even colonize it. But Kepler-22b is over 600 light-years away and it would take a space shuttle, assuming we start building them again, 22 million years to reach it.
If there is alien life out there, the best opportunity of finding it is the SETI project, a complex of 42 radio telescopes, but its work was suspended over the summer for lack of funds.
Meanwhile, University of California, Berkeley, astronomers on Monday announced the discovery of two massive black holes, the largest yet, one of them 9.7 billion times the size of the sun. A black hole is formed by the collapse of a giant star in on itself, creating a gravitational hole so dense that nothing escapes, not even light or another star that happens to get too close. The black holes are more than 300 million light-years away, which, the Associated Press rather alarmingly points out, is "relatively close on the galactic scale."
These discoveries are pure basic research and it's not cheap; Kepler cost $600 million to build and launch. These discoveries have no immediate practical applications, although the methods used to make them do.
But the discoveries go to the core of what makes us humans: We can't stand not knowing.
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