Will we be able to image 'Earth's twin'?

Scientists have confirmed the discovery of an alien planet about the size of earth orbiting a red dwarf star 600 light years away in the habitable, or "Goldilocks" zone. The discovery was made by NASA's now crippled Kepler Space Telescope.

This may prove to be one of the most profound discoveries in scientific history.

New York Times:

The planet, known as Kepler 186f, named after NASA’s Kepler planet-finding mission, which detected it, has a diameter of 8,700 miles, 10 percent wider than Earth, and its orbit lies within the “Goldilocks zone” of its star, Kepler 186 — not too hot, not too cold, where temperatures could allow for liquid water to flow at the surface, making it potentially hospitable for life.

“Kepler 186f is the first validated, Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of another star,” Elisa V. Quintana of the SETI Institute and NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., said at a news conference on Thursday. “It has the right size and is at the right distance to have properties similar to our home planet.”

Dr. Quintana is the lead author of a scientific paper describing the findings in this week’s issue of the journal Science. Kepler 186f is the latest planet to be sifted out of the voluminous data collected by Kepler, which kept watch over 150,000 stars, looking for slight drops in brightness when a planet passed in front.

How sensitive was Kepler's photometer? If it was placed in New York city, it could detect the change in brightness of a Los Angeles searchlight as a moth passed in front of it. A truly remarkable robot explorer.

With its smaller size, Kepler 186f is more likely to have an Earth-like rocky surface, another step in astronomers’ quest for what might be called Earth 2.0.

“It’s a progression,” said another member of the discovery team, Thomas S. Barclay of the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute. “This planet really reminds us of Earth.”

The researchers speculate that it is made of the same stuff as Earth — iron, rock, ice, liquid water, although the relative amounts could be very different.

The gravity on Kepler 186f, too, is likely to be roughly the same as Earth’s. “You could far more easily imagine someone being able to go there and walk around on the surface,” Stephen Kane, an astronomer at San Francisco State University and another member of the research team, said in an interview.

Kepler 186f is not a perfect replica, however. It is closer to its star — a red dwarf that is smaller, cooler and fainter than our sun — than the Earth is to its; its year, the time to complete one orbit, is 130 days, not 365. It is also at the outer edge of the habitable zone, receiving less warmth, so perhaps more of its surface would freeze.

“Perhaps it’s more of an Earth cousin than an Earth twin,” Dr. Barclay said.

Sitting in the largest clean room in the world at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is another robot explorer that may be able to give us a closer look at Kepler 186F - if it ever gets off the ground.

The James Webb Space Telescope was designed to replace the aging Hubble telescope with the promise of even more spectacular images and discoveries. But the project is now massively over budget - due largely to ridiculous budget estimates in the first place - and a recent GAO report questions whether the prime contractor - Northrup - will be able to meet its launch date in 2018.

More than a decade after a prime contract was awarded for the development of the Hubble Space Telescope's successor, NASA's largest science project remains on shaky ground.

First, the good news: Program costs for the James Webb Space Telescope being developed by Northrop Grumman Corp. have remained stable for the last few years, ever since the project was rebalanced with a 78 percent increase to the cost estimate. That, of course, propelled total program costs to $8.83 billion, from a baseline estimate in 2009 of about $5 billion.

Unfortunately for Northrop, most of the budget increase was to accommodate ballooning development costs. Those went from $2.58 billion in 2009 to $6.19 billion with the 2011 rebalancing — a 140 percent change.

"Since the program re-plan in 2011, Northrop Grumman's work on the James Webb Space Telescope continues to be on budget and remains on schedule to meet the 2018 launch date," said Northrop spokesman Randy Belote.

The Government Accountability Office, however, isn't so sure it will stay that way.

The watchdog agency's annual assessment of major NASA programs, released Tuesday, highlighted a number of issues it identified earlier this year. Development of the cryocooler that cools one JWST instrument was delayed due to technical issues, upping contract costs. Development challenges have required Northrop to allocate a significant portion of its cost reserves, depleting the amount available for the next year. (Limited reserves could require work to be extended or deferred, the GAO noted, which was a contributing factor to the project’s prior performance issues.) And the program's master schedule, culminating in a 2018 launch date — 52 months later than prior 2009 estimates — might still be a little too optimistic, in part because delivery of three subsystems tied to the program seem likely to fall behind.

All that translates to the potential for more delays and cost increases, which could trickle down through other NASA programs.

As an aside, the JWST will cost more than 10 times what it cost to build and operate Kepler. But the promise of being able to image planets that are hundreds of light years away is giving impetus to the drive to finish the telescope - and damn the cost.

It's no way tro run a space agency and congress should have seriously considered terminating the program when it became clear it would cost almost double the original estimate. While no doubt a stunning technological achievement, poor planning and poor management led to unacceptable levels of overspending. There are 16 other nations involved in the JWST project, so at least some of the pain of cost overruns is shared. But most nations are contributing to the operation of the telescope, not its construction.

As much as most of us space fanatics would love to see the JWST in operation, this is one more instance of NASA not showing itself capable of turning ideas into reality. If Congress had been told the project would have cost the taxpayer nearly $9 billion (the original estimate was $5 billion), it is doubtful it would have received the support to begin construction.

Let's hope it works as advertised. If it does, Kepler 186f will be one of its first targets in 2018.