The longest journey starts with a single step.

July 25, 2011/ August 3, 2013

On March 6, 2009, NASA launched the Kepler spacecraft with the mission to find planets around stars in the Cygnus Constellation in the Milky Way galaxy.

This is one of those moments in history when the human species uses it's unique ability to think about changing it's environment for it's own purposes. Finding other habitable planets is just the first step in a long journey to avoid extinction by dispersing the species.

Curiously, we are becoming the aliens we fear, searching for a new world to conquer. We are planet hunting.

The Kepler mission uses what is called 'transit photometry' which basically means taking a series of pictures of the brightness of a star to determine if something ( a planet) is dimming its brightness by passing in front of it.

Figure 1 shows three months of actual data for K10, KID 11904151, the tenth planetary system observed by the kepler spacecraft.

Planet light dimming data

The Kepler Mission is maintained by the NASA Ames Research Center ( Citizen participation via the internet is maintained by Yale University and Zooniverse (

As public data it can be downloaded free by registering with MAST and filling out a DATA RETRIEVAL SEARCH FORM.

In figure 2 is a series of orthographic projections of the data with the bright data eliminated and the dim data inverted. It shows that the dimming cause by the planet orbiting the star lines up over time but there is a great deal of noise. The noise, however, does not mask the regular periodic peaks in the array.

This data would be a great resource for college students studying science, engineering and math. It would introduce them to the type of real-world data they will encounter later. In addition, they may actually begin to understand what "outliers" are and how to reasonably deal with them given a set of data to analyze. The earth is round, but not perfectly so.

Planet Tracks

Humans are really good at pattern recognition in 2 dimensions but they excel in 3. If you have ever walked along a beach looking for shark's teeth you will recognise how easy it is to find them. We focus our minds on shape, size, color and shadow. I have yet to see a machine do that.

Figure 3 is a 3 dimensional view of the kepler data for K10 using HTML5 and WebGL for rendering. At a glance you can see the regular patterned tracks of a planet circling the star each day.

This is the confirmed planet, Kepler-10b, with a period of .84 days and a transit time of 1.8 hours.

It is just one of the 135 confirmed planets already discovered by the kepler mission.