Campus News

NASA scientist to discuss search for extraterrestrial life

Roger Hunter

Athens, Ga. – The project manager for NASA’s Kepler Mission, which is searching for planets that could support life, will deliver a lecture at the University of Georgia on April 12 at 4 p.m. in room 202 of the physics building.

Roger Hunter, who earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, will present an overview of the Kepler Mission, its science objectives, the results discovered so far and the expectations for the mission. The lecture is free and open to the public.

“We are excited to have Col. Hunter back on campus again for what will undoubtedly be a fascinating lecture,” said William Dennis, a professor and head of the UGA physics and astronomy department. “The question of whether we are alone in the universe is as old as humanity itself, and we’re proud to have a UGA alumnus working to answer the question.”

NASA’s Kepler Mission spacecraft was launched in March 2009 and includes a telescope that continuously monitors the brightness of stars. When a planet passes in front of its parent star, it blocks a small fraction of the light from that star. Kepler must record at least three transits to verify a signal as a planet. From the brightness change, scientists can determine the planet’s size. From the time between transits, scientists can determine the size of the planet’s orbit and estimate the planet’s temperature-qualities that determine possibilities for life on the planet.

All of the extrasolar planets detected by other projects are giant planets, mostly the size of Jupiter and bigger. The Kepler Mission has identified well over 200 Earth-size planet candidates and more than 900 that are less than two times the size of the Earth. Of the 46 planet candidates found in the habitable zone, the region in the planetary system where liquid water could exist, 10 of these candidates are near Earth-size.

Hunter notes that the chief science objective of the Kepler Mission is to answer some ancient questions: How rare is the Earth? What fraction of stars in our galaxy harbor potentially habitable planets? The answers to those questions may offer a profound understanding on whether life is widespread in the galaxy or whether we are possibly alone, he said.