GREENBUSH — As long as people have studied the night sky and understood the stars we can see are objects similar to our sun, we have wondered if there are other planets like ours out there. Thanks to recent advances in technology and our understanding of astronomy, we are finally beginning to be able to answer that question.
“We have made some huge strides toward finding other planets that are like Earth,” said Josh Cochran, observatory director at the Southeast Kansas Education Service Center at Greenbush, at a recent Observatory Night at the center that focused on new telescopes and the search for exoplanets.
An exoplanet is defined as a planet that orbits a star other than our own sun. Although it is no longer functioning, the Kepler Space Telescope launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2009 has identified “thousands and thousands” of potential exoplanets, Cochran told an audience of about 80 people at the March 15 Observatory Night. “Of course the implication leads to, ‘Well, if there’s other planets, what might be on those other planets?’,” Cochran said.
“Here at the beginning of the 21st century, we have an explosion of technology which has allowed us to expand our knowledge of these planets that are beyond our own solar system,” he said, “and in the very near future that technology will likely give us the ability to detect signs of life on those worlds as well.”
Cochran hosts Greenbush’s Observatory Night events on a monthly basis, generally on Fridays. Observatory Nights are free to attend and each one focuses on a different astronomy-related theme, occasionally featuring a guest speaker.
As an astronomer, Cochran is enthusiastic about NASA’s efforts to study other planets, but he also criticized some of the agency’s methods of publicizing its findings. “Everything that is in today’s presentation is from a dot-gov website,” he said. “There’s no Wikipedia stuff.” NASA often publishes real photos from telescopes, however, alongside artists’ renderings of the planets it detects, without clearly distinguishing between them. “That is incredibly misleading,” he said, and can be confusing to viewers.
Cochran also discussed some of the controversies surrounding how planets are defined, such as the relatively recent re-designation of Pluto as a “dwarf planet.” In addressing an audience member’s question, he pointed out that while Mercury is smaller than Pluto, it remains officially a planet while Pluto does not due to Pluto having other objects in the same orbital path.
Besides presentations like the one Cochran gave on March 15, Observatory Nights at Greenbush also include movie showings and the opportunity to use the telescopes at the center’s Astrophysical Observatory.
On a night when there is a big event such as a lunar eclipse or a meteor shower that’s been promoted in the national media, Cochran said, several hundred people have shown up for Greenbush’s Observatory nights. “When the weather’s lousy it’s a handful,” he added.
Wayne Bockelman of Pittsburg said he came out for the March 15 Observatory Night because it was finally a clear night, adding that the topic of exoplanets was fascinating.
“It’s amazing that we can find out things about objects that are so far away that we can’t see them,” said Bockelman, a retired high school science teacher. “It’s fun to see how many little kids are asking intelligent questions about the universe,” he added.
Carl Brenner, who recently became chief of interpretation and resource management with the National Park Service at Fort Scott National Historic Site, visited Greenbush for the first time March 15, and said he was impressed with the facility.
“I think this community is extremely lucky to have this,” he said, adding that he hopes to network with the Greenbush center as well as amateur astronomers to build further interest in observing the night sky.
“Looking up into the sky is the last frontier, it’s the last wilderness we have to protect,” Brenner said. “Dark skies are a vanishing resource.”