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 4 of 6)
Though the tests weren’t designed to spot terrestrial planets, other discoveries, later verified by spectroscopy, proved that the remotely operated camera was photometrically precise. “He’s shown that he can find eclipsing binaries, which are as hard to find as looking for transits,” says Koch.
Go Prove It
When the team came back with yet another Discovery proposal in 1998, reviewers complained that in space, cosmic rays or noise and jiggles in the spacecraft could interfere with the precision of the detectors. The Kepler team took it in stride. “They always loved the science [but] they always had a technical question about our ability to do the job,” says Larry Webster.
This time NASA granted Borucki a half-million dollars to build a demonstrator that could prove the proposed system would work. It was an unprecedented step for NASA headquarters. Ames agreed to match the amount, and within 88 days—Webster counted them one by one—the team assembled an end-to-end ground system. “We worked seven days a week, and had most of the machine shops in the [San Francisco Bay area] working with us,” Borucki says.
The Kepler Tech Demo, a 10-foot phone-booth-like steel-and-styrofoam frame, surrounded a single CCD, a coolant system, and other hardware. It took six months to get it working, and Borucki grew nervous. “We were spending Ames money like crazy,” he recalls, “and I was waiting for the moment they would say, ‘Hey Bill, great try, why don’t you move on to something else?’ ” The results from the contraption, however, clinched the deal: The Demo detected simulated planetary transits—brightness changes of 100 parts per million—in a mocked-up 1,600-star sky. In December 2001, reviewers ran out of criticisms. Kepler was chosen as a Discovery mission.
For Webster, NASA’s challenge made all the difference. “It was kind of a ‘We don’t quite believe you can do it. Go prove it. When you’re ready, come back,’ ” he recalls. “We did that in spades and came back in the 2000 proposal and there was just nothing left to critique. We were perfect.”
It wasn’t an unalloyed victory, though. Weeks later, following Borucki’s meeting with NASA managers, the Kepler team swallowed hard and turned mission development (everything up to launch) over to JPL—one of the two NASA centers, along with the Goddard Space Flight Center, designated to carry out missions beyond Earth orbit.
Nailing the Numbers
With Kepler’s selection, Borucki’s biggest victory may have been on behalf of Ames in its sibling rivalry. Up to that point, says Kent Cullers, who is in charge of R&D at the now-private SETI, “JPL has had the lion’s share of the R&D funding” for finding Earth-like planets.
JPL managers, once critical of the project, now sing Kepler’s praises. “Kepler will do a great job nailing down the numbers” of terrestrial planets, predicts Charles Beichman, chief scientist for NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder program. Its findings may help determine the TPF mission’s design. “We’ve pushed Kepler aggressively in the last four or five years,” he adds, though he admits that in “the mists of time,” questions were raised about Kepler’s efficacy. “Now it is very solid and credible,” Beichman says.