As a lover of both polls and space travel, I wanted to move off-topic for a moment and let people know that the greatest poll of all time will go into the field at 10:48 p.m. eastern, on Thursday, March 5th. It is a new sattelite called The Kepler mission, which is NASA's first major attempt to find Earth-like planets around stars other than our own. By continually monitoring the light produced by 100,000 stars in a distant area of the galaxy, and by utilizing the transit method of extrasolar planet detection, functionally it is a poll that will provide us with a statistically sound sampling of solar systems in our galaxy. Specifically, the Kepler mission aims to accomplish all of the following:
- Determine how many terrestrial and larger planets there are in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of spectral types of stars
- Determine the range of sizes and shapes of the orbits of these planets
- Estimate how many planets there are in multiple-star systems
- Determine the range of orbit size, brightness, size, mass and density of short-period giant planets
- Identify additional members of each discovered planetary system using other techniques
- Determine the properties of those stars that harbor planetary systems
While Kepler will not be monitoring stars within even 1,000 light years of our own, and thus won't be detecting any Earth-like planets with which we could ever hope to communicate, it will let us know what we can expect to find in all solar systems other than our own, including those systems closest to us. This makes it, in my opinion, the greatest poll of all-time.
After Kepler, the search for nearby exoplanets will really heat up with projects like The James Webb Space Telescope and the EU's Darwin Mission. It honestly seems possible that we will know, within the next twenty years, whether or not there are Earth-like planets in any neighboring solar systems. If there are intelligent civilizations on any of those planets, it is unlikely that any of us will be alive to take part in conversations with that civilization. Still, this is an amazing feat, and at least one reason to be excited about the future.