Over Memorial Day weekend, I attended the RTMC Astronomy Expo in Big Bear, California. Dr. Steve Howell, the project scientist for the Kepler space telescope gave the keynote address. Steve was also my co-editor on the science fiction anthology A Kepler’s Dozen. Steve and I were joined by contributor Anna Paradox for a panel about the ways science fiction and science push each other forward. We had a great time, but I think the real highlight of the weekend was when my daughter won a brand new telescope.
This week, my work schedule and clear skies finally coincided and I was able to help her set up the telescope. We took a look first at the moon and at Mars. It was terrific to see the wonder on her face when she first saw the craters on the moon. Mars is a challenging target even in bigger telescopes. We saw little more than a red disk. Still, I was impressed with how well she picked up the operation of the telescope and her eagerness to explore new things. I’ll be out with her again soon to give her a few more tips and tricks. After that, the universe will be hers to explore.
During his keynote speech, Steve shared some exciting news about the Kepler telescope. I’m sure many of you reading this know that Kepler lost two of its reaction wheels, ending its ability to point precisely. However, the Kepler team has figured out a way to use solar pressure to allow Kepler to point steadily in the plane of the ecliptic at a series of different targets as the telescope orbits the sun. Not only is this a cool use of the physics that might allow solar sails to one day work, it also means that Kepler’s mission will be extended into a new mission called K2. One of the neat things about the Kepler telescope is that the data is available to public. In fact, one place you can actually help look at Kepler data is the website planethunters.org, and yes, they will be looking at K2 data. The K2 mission will not only look for planets near the Earth, but at supernovae, variable stars, and active galaxies. I felt like my daughter wasn’t the only one who got a new telescope. We all did.