A Tribute to Kepler: Past, Present and Future of the Search for Exoplanets


Tags: SETI Talks, Outreach, Kepler, Exoplanets

Time: Tuesday, Nov 13, 2018 -

Location: SRI International, 333 Ravenswood Ave., Menlo Park, CA 94025

Update: Due to last week’s news about the status of the Kepler mission, we will be offering a different program than previously announced for the November 13 SETI Talk.

SETI Talks are presented by the SETI Institute and SRI International.

A few days ago, NASA announced the end of Kepler’s data collection. This is not the end of the NASA Kepler mission, since there is still a significant amount of data to be analyzed, but an exciting phase of the mission: the beginning of a new era for a new field of research called “exoplanetary science”, or the search and characterization of extra-solar planets and the life they could harbor. 

Kepler was NASA’s first mission dedicated to the search for planets around other stars, called exoplanets. The first exoplanet was discovered just 20 years prior to launch, and only a few hundred more were discovered in that time, with most of them inhabitable and more similar to gas giants like Jupiter than Earth. In the nearly ten years since Kepler’s launch, data from the spacecraft has resulted in the detection of thousands of exoplanets, with a multitude of them the size of Earth or smaller, and many of them at the right distance from their star to possibly support life. Thanks to data from Kepler, we now have greater understanding of two terms of the Drake Equation that had eluded us for fifty-seven years --- we now know there are even more planets than stars in our galaxy and that a significant number of them could have the right conditions to be habitable.

Thanks to Kepler, we know that Earth is not alone. The odds of humanity not being alone in the cosmos seem high. But there are still a lot of big terms in that simple little Drake Equation to figure out. The search will continue with new space telescopes like TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), and future generation of large space telescopes like JWST (James Webb Space Telescope).  

We invited Natalie Batalha, Professor at U.C. Santa Cruz, and Doug Caldwell, Senior Research Scientist at the SETI Institute to discuss the state of the search for exoplanets. What did we learn from the Kepler mission? What are the most exotic planetary systems discovered so far? What are the chances of finding extraterrestrial life in the next decade using new telescopes? These are the questions that will be addressed during our special SETI Talk on the end of the Kepler spacecraft on November 13 at 7pm at SRI International, Menlo Park, CA. Join us for a special tribute to the Kepler spacecraft. 

Natalie Batalha, now a professor at U.C. Santa Cruz,  was an astrophysicist at NASA Ames Research Center and the project scientist for NASA's Kepler Mission. She holds a Bachelor's degree in physics from the University of California (UC), Berkeley, and a Doctoral degree in astrophysics from UC Santa Cruz. Batalha started her career as a stellar spectroscopist studying young, sun-like stars. After a post-doctoral fellowship in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she returned to California.

In 1999, inspired by the growing number of exoplanet discoveries, Batalha joined the team led by William Borucki at Ames working on transit photometry—an emerging technology for finding exoplanets. She has been involved with the Kepler Mission since the proposal stage and has contributed to many different aspects of the science, from studying the stars themselves to detecting and understanding the planets they harbor. Batalha led the analysis that yielded the discovery in 2011 of Kepler-10b—the mission's first confirmation of a rocky planet outside our Solar System. Today, she leads the effort to understand planet populations in the galaxy based on Kepler discoveries.

Batalha served ten years as professor of physics and astronomy in the classrooms of San Jose State University before joining the Astrophysics Branch of the Space Sciences Division of NASA Ames Research Center. In 2011, she was awarded a NASA Public Service Medal for her vision in communicating Kepler science to the public and for outstanding leadership in coordinating the Kepler Science Team.

Doug Caldwell is a SETI Institute scientist, Co-Investigator on the Kepler Mission, and Instrument Scientist for the Kepler Mission.  Twenty years ago, astronomers could only speculate about whether planets were commonplace in the universe or distressingly rare. Thanks to Kepler, the discovery of thousands of worlds around other stars has shown that planets orbit most of the stars in our galaxy. But how many of these planets are Earth-sized, and possibly Earth-like? Doug is an expert on one of the most successful techniques for finding small worlds far beyond our Solar System: looking for the slight dimming of a star caused when a planet crosses between that star and us. He is involved in a trio of transit experiments, including one running at the South Pole. While admittedly a tough environment for an observatory, this antipodal location offers long nights and high altitude, perfect conditions for finding the small dip in stellar brightness that betray a planet. In addition, Doug is also the Instrument Scientist for NASA’s Kepler Mission, the ambitious, space-borne telescope that has examined over one hundred thousand stars and found thousands of planets, many as small or smaller than Earth. Kepler's results have moved us from asking whether other Earth's are out there, to asking how can we search these Earths for atmospheres and life. 

NOTE: Due to the popularity of the SETI Talks events, tickets are often sold out. If you register to attend, then realize you will be unable to come, please let us know as we will then be able to open up the seats for others. You can email us at webmaster@seti.org. Thank You! 

SETI Talks are held at the SRI Conference Center at 333 Ravenswood Avenue. Please enter from Middlefield Road and follow the signs.


Planning is underway for upcoming SETI Talks, but we have some dates you might want hold:

December 18, 2018
January 16, 2019
February 13, 2019