It was a busy weekend for backchannel emails. I got off a Twitter post (OK, a ‘tweet’) on the centauri_dreams channel on Friday about the disturbing news from Kepler. The reaction was swift. The problem is caused by noisy amplifiers in the electronics of the space-borne telescope, which means the powers that be have to fiddle with the way data from Kepler is processed. This article in Nature News (thanks to all who forwarded links) spells it all out, saying that the planet hunt could be delayed.
The article has circulated widely but apparently has problems of its own. William Borucki, Kepler principal investigator, posted this on Ian O’Neill’s SpaceDisco site:
“There is a mistake in the Nature article. The Kepler Mission is actually doing very well and is producing planet discoveries that will be announced early next year. Data from 3 of the 84 channels that have more noise than the others will be corrected or the data flagged to avoid being mixed in with the low noise data prior to the time an Earth twin could be discovered.”
No word here on exactly how long that corrective process will take, so this is still a developing story. The Nature News article had said the Kepler team’s best response to the noise issue would be to re-write the software code, a process that might take two years or more. That’s not a fatal problem, but it would push back the time-frame for finding our first terrestrial world around another star. Because that first find might well be an Earth-sized planet around an M-dwarf, where transits are frequent because the habitable zone is so much closer to its star.
That thought probably put new wind in the sails of planet-hunters for ground-based projects as well as CoRoT. This is competitive business, make no mistake, and a slowdown at Kepler enhances the chances for the Earth-sized planet prize going to someone else. The Nature News article quotes Greg Laughlin (UCSC) on this, saying the delay makes it “more likely that the first Earth-mass planet is going to go to the radial-velocity observers.” But now we must learn more about how bad the current problem is, and wait for Kepler’s upcoming planetary announcements.