Bill Borucki's Planet Search
Finding another Earth may be easier than the Kepler project's long quest for funding.
- By Andrew Lawler
- Air & Space magazine, May 2003
(Page 3 of 6)
“I hate CCDs,” he says, chuckling but serious. “The only reason I chose them was because I knew I had to convince the community that we could do the job. It was easier to convince them with CCDs than it was with silicon diodes.” His spacecraft would eventually require dozens—the most recent design calls for 42, compared to the Hubble Space Telescope’s four.
Here to There
In early 1993, Ames called for a review of Borucki’s work. Just as space-qualified CCDs were becoming commercially available, Borucki gave an eight-hour presentation that convinced Ames of his project’s feasibility.
New data from NASA’s Solar Max mission lent a supporting hand. “Solar variability was coming out to about 10 parts per million. At the time scale of a transit, solar variability is much smaller than a transit,” says Dave Koch, Kepler’s deputy principal investigator and Borucki’s right-hand man. “The [review] committee said ‘Yes, this can now be done. It’s not just a cute idea, it really is a practical idea.’ ”
From then on, the center quietly provided a steady stream of money for the project. Ames officials backed the high-risk research for its own sake, but they were also aware of the interferometer work being done by their NASA rivals at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and entering the planet race appealed to their competitive instincts.
By 1994, Borucki and his team had closed in on the algorithms necessary to make sense of CCD data, and the project, nicknamed FRESIP (Frequency of Earth-Sized Inner Planets), was ready to compete for a NASA Discovery mission. (Discovery missions were to reflect NASA chief Dan Goldin’s vision of cheaper and more tightly focused projects that could be launched 36 months from selection and cost no more than $299 million from design through launch and data analysis.)
Though NASA liked the concept of FRESIP, it was shot down by reviewers, who said the effort would cost far more than the team anticipated. Several team members believed NASA overestimated costs by simply scaling down the expenses of bigger, more inherently complex missions. “We were put in the same box as the large high-precision astronomical telescopes,” says Larry Webster, Kepler’s project manager and an old NASA hand who has worked closely with Borucki for the past decade.
Two years later, Borucki and his team were ready again. This time they had three groups check out their costing scheme, but reviewers said that the system, renamed Kepler to distance it from FRESIP’s price tag flap, didn’t seem capable of imaging the promised tens of thousands of stars. So the team built a camera with a CCD and began testing it in October 1997 at Lick Observatory in the nearby mountains. Lacking funds to hire anyone to operate the device, called Vulcan, Borucki organized a program in which volunteers would take care of the night shifts required to keep Vulcan functioning.
It wasn’t too hard to convince people to pitch in. Researchers at SETI were eager for the Kepler team’s data so that they could point their giant radio telescopes at systems with Earth-size planets. Astrobiologists at Ames strongly supported the mission too. “We really believed in the potential of the project so we donated our time,” says Ames Integrative Studies Lead Lynn Harper. After many treks up to the observatory, Harper and other volunteers managed to find the money to enable Borucki to hire an operator.