Keeping Watch

StarDate: August 20, 2009

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If anyone lives in the star system known as HIP 95352, they might want to be on their best behavior for the next few years. We're watching.

Or to be more precise, the Kepler spacecraft is watching. It's staring non-stop at a hundred thousand stars in the constellations Lyra and Cygnus, which soar high overhead this evening.

Kepler is looking for Earth-like planets in Earth-like orbits around Sun-like stars. Such planets are the most likely homes for Earth-like life.

To find those planets, Kepler's carefully watching the light from the target stars. If a planet passes across the face of a star, the star will fade a tiny bit for a few hours. If the fading repeats itself a few times, it'll confirm the existence of a planet. The details will tell us the planet's size and orbit.

HIP 95352 is one of the brightest of Kepler's target stars -- it's easily visible through binoculars. It's about 400 light-years away, at Lyra's northwestern corner. It's about the same color and temperature as the Sun. It's much later in life, though, so it's puffed up to form a giant. It's several times bigger than the Sun, and about a hundred times brighter.

A planet in an Earth-like orbit would long ago have been baked to a crisp by the expanding star. But the star is billions of years old. So if intelligent life developed there, it's possible that it could have moved farther away -- and might still inhabit the system today.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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