In a building at NASA’s Ames Research Center here, computers are sifting and resifting the light from 156,000 stars, seeking to find in the flickering of distant suns the first hints that humanity is not alone in the universe. The stars are being monitored by a $600 million satellite observatory named Kepler, whose job is to conduct a kind of Gallup poll of worlds in the cosmos.
On Wednesday, Kepler’s astronomers are scheduled to unveil a closely kept list of 400 stars that are their brightest and best bets so far for harboring planets, some of which could turn out to be the smallest and most Earth-like worlds discovered out there to date. They represent the first glimpse of riches to come in a quest that is as old as the imagination and as new as the iPad.
Over the next two or three years, as Kepler continues to stare and sift, astronomers say, it will be able to detect planets in the “Goldilocks” zones, where it is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water.
“What we want is to find life,” said Geoffrey Marcy, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, who is part of the Kepler team.
William Borucki, 72, the lead scientist, who has spent the last 20 years getting Kepler off the ground, said recently in an interview in his office: “I’ve argued that Kepler is more important than the Hubble Space Telescope. We provide the data mankind needs to move out into space.”