The NASA Kepler Mission

Last September, the Institute of Physics released a volume describing the results of NASA’s Kepler Mission. The mission’s purpose was to survey a region of the galaxy to see how many planets could be found and determine their properties. I was honored that the editor, Steve Howell, asked me to contribute a short article about the appearance of real exoplanets in science fiction. In the article, I discuss how astronomy and science fiction have “grown up” together, and look at how science fiction contributed to helping people see the planets of our own solar system as places we could actually visit and show how this is starting to happen with exoplanets.

The NASA Kepler Mission

The NASA Kepler and K2 missions have made fundamental, paradigm-changing advances in essentially every area of astrophysics and planetary science. While known for their breakthrough discoveries in exoplanets – especially small rocky worlds orbiting in the habitable zone of their host suns – these missions have also continued to make numerous scientific advances in solar system science, stellar astrophysics and extragalactic astronomy. This book is devoted to the Kepler and K2 missions and covers the tremendous new discoveries made in the areas of spacecraft engineering, asteroseismology, binary and variable stars, stellar astrophysics, white dwarfs, asteroids and comets, active galaxies, supernovae, black holes, and of course exoplanets of all types. It is suitable for the interested layperson, pupils of science and space missions, and advanced science students and researchers wishing for an introduction and highly focused memoir of the NASA Kepler mission and its amazing accomplishments.

The book is designed to provide an introduction to advanced science presentations on all major mission topics. It was written by the scientists who made the discoveries. It includes engineering and spacecraft discussions. The book describes the effects of the mission on science and the world, integrating many of the major discoveries and their graphics, movies, and materials. Finally, the book includes side boxes of interest, for example exoplanet naming conventions and perspectives from noted scientists.

The editor, Steve B Howell, is a senior research scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. He was formerly the head of the Space Science and Astrobiology Division and the project scientist for NASA’s premier exoplanet finding missions: Kepler and K2. Howell has written more than 800 scientific publications, numerous popular and technical articles, and has authored and edited 10 books on astronomy and astronomical instrumentation. He was also my co-editor on the books, A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys, which featured science fiction stories set at real Kepler planets.

Like many academic volumes, The NASA Kepler Mission has a pretty large price tag, priced more for academic than personal libraries. Still, if you live near a university with a science library, you can likely borrow a copy if you want to peruse the book or even read my sidebar article. The publisher’s page for the book is: https://store.ioppublishing.org/page/detail/The-NASA-Kepler-Mission/?k=9780750322942

Below are the two anthologies I edited with Steve.

A Kepler’s Dozen
Kepler’s Cowboys

You can learn about the anthology A Kepler’s Dozen by visiting: http://davidleesummers.com/Keplers-Dozen.html

The second anthology we edited about Kepler planets is Kepler’s Cowboys. You can learn more about it at: http://davidleesummers.com/Keplers-Cowboys.html

See You Space Cowboy…

Last week, NASA announced that after nine years of service, the Kepler Space Telescope has run out of fuel and will be switched off. It’s in an orbit around the sun, far from Earth. To date, it has been credited with the discovery of some 2,681 planets outside our solar system from both the Kepler and K2 missions. The K2 mission was the follow-up that happened after two of Kepler’s reaction wheels failed and it could no longer point at its target field. There are 2,780 candidate planets still to be checked with ground based observations, so Kepler’s total discovery count will likely increase even now that Kepler is off line. Among the planets Kepler has discovered include numerous Jupiter-sized worlds orbiting their stars in mere hours, many ice giant worlds like Uranus and Neptune, and there are some 361 candidate and confirmed planets in the habitable zones of their stars.

Earlier this year, Kepler’s successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, was launched. Whereas Kepler was designed to monitor one part of the sky and see how many planets it could find, TESS is designed to survey the stars nearest to the Earth. TESS has already its announced its first exoplanet discoveries.

Steve Howell observing at the Mayall 4-meter telescope, confirming Kepler discoveries.

At Kitt Peak, I work at the Mayall and WIYN telescopes, which are involved in confirming exoplanets. WIYN’s telescope scientist was Dr. Steve Howell when I started working at Kitt Peak eleven years ago. Steve since moved on to become Kepler’s Project Scientist and now serves as the head of the astronomy and astrobiology section at Ames Spaceflight Center which serves as the center of Kepler and TESS operations. One night while observing Kepler targets we began to talk about how Mars became more of a place in people’s imaginations after it started appearing in the science fiction of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, so we hatched plans to compile an anthology of stories set on Kepler worlds.

Our first anthology was A Kepler’s Dozen, which collected action-packed, mysterious, and humorous stories all based on real planets discovered by the NASA Kepler mission. Authors like Mike Brotherton, Laura Givens, and J Alan Erwine imagined stories set in places like a prison colony, or escaping from the authorities, or encircling a binary star. We collected thirteen stories in all. We also included facts about each of the planets written about in the anthology. You can learn more about the anthology at: http://hadrosaur.com/kepler.htmlAlso at the page is a link to a press release by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory that gives more background about the Kepler telescope and Kitt Peak’s role in confirming discoveries.

This anthology has done well and Kepler’s success continued, so we decided to compile a second anthology. The follow up was Kepler’s Cowboys, which imagined the space cowboys and cowgirls who would visit the worlds discovered by Kepler. In this anthology, we encouage you to saddle up and take an unforgettable journey to distant star systems. You’ll meet new life forms—some willing to be your friend and others who will see you as the invader. You’ll fight for justice in a lawless frontier. You can go on a quest for a few dollars more. We wanted an exciting, fun, and rollicking anthology. This one included fourteen stories and five poems by such authors as Patrick Thomas, Jaleta Clegg, Anthony R. Cardno, and L.J. Bonham. You can learn more about this anthology at:  http://hadrosaur.com/keplers-cowboys.html

Kepler has had a great run and it’s sad to see it reach the end of it’s life. Still, I think we could fill many more anthologies with stories about its planets and that’s even before we do any anthologies featuring discoveries by TESS. While you’re waiting, you can check out my space pirate story collection Firebrandt’s Legacy, which not only visits a couple of Kepler planets, but several other possible worlds out in the galaxy. You can learn more about that project at my Patreon page: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

Astronomy and Science Fiction

The RTMC Astronomy Expo will be held from May 22-26, 2014 at Camp Oakes just outside Big Bear City, California. The Astronomy Expo is an exciting event where amateur astronomers see new developments in telescope making, check out commercial telescopes brought by numerous vendors, listen to presentations about astronomy and observing, and have the chance to socialize and observe the night sky. You can learn more about the event at the RTMC Astronomy Expo website. The keynote speaker is Dr. Steve Howell, Project Scientist for NASA’s Kepler Mission, seen here enjoying his copy of Human Tales.

Human-Tales-Steve-1

Steve and I co-edited the anthology A Kepler’s Dozen, which features thirteen stories set around planets discovered by the Kepler Telescope. In addition to Steve’s keynote presentation, the two of us along with Anna Paradox will present a panel discussing the anthology at 2:30pm on Saturday, May 24. Our plan for the panel is to discuss the ways science fiction can be used as an education resource and an inspiration for scientists, plus we’ll look at how science fiction writers are informed by discoveries in astronomy.

A Kepler's Dozen

Whether on a prison colony, in a fast escape from the authorities, or encircling a binary star, A Kepler’s Dozen contains stories written by authors such as Mike Brotherton, Laura Givens, and J Alan Erwine which will amuse, frighten, and intrigue you while you share fantasy adventures among Kepler’s real-life planets. Of course we’ll have copies of the anthology on hand at the Expo. But, you don’t have to wait, visit the Kepler’s Dozen page to learn how to get a copy today!