It was startling news when NASA announced this month that the orbiting Kepler telescope has spotted 1,235 possible planets within the Milky Way, outside our solar system -- and 54 of them are in the "Goldilocks zone," just the right distance from their suns, making them not too hot and not too cold but just right for liquid water and sprouting life.
But here's something more startling: The Kepler orbiter scans only a small arc, just one-400th of the sky. If it could survey the total sphere, it presumably would have found more than 400,000 planets, with perhaps 16,000 in the Goldilocks zone, NASA leaders said.
Within its small range, the Kepler watches 156,000 stars and measures faint dips in brightness, presumably caused by planets passing in front of them. Eventually, astronomers must focus giant scopes on these discoveries to verify whether the dimming stems from planets.
If proof is forthcoming, it means that another significant step in the scientific understanding of the universe is occurring.
Indirectly, West Virginia has a stake in this quest. A half-century ago, astronomer Frank Drake used giant dishes of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Pocahontas County to launch SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Amid all the random "radio noise" in space, his staff looked for possible messages exchanged between thinking creatures on alien planets.
None ever was found. But Dr. Drake, now 80, hasn't given up. "Imagine the impact such a discovery would have," he recently told reporter Rick Steelhammer. "The excitement of being involved with that -- it's something that never wears off." Associates are continuing his search. "It's such an important question to answer," Drake added.
Since life evolved on Earth, there's no logical reason to assume that it couldn't have evolved elsewhere. Now the SETI seekers have 54 more Goldilocks sites to watch. If they eventually make contact, communication presumably will be limited to radio exchanges, because the nearest known planet is so far away it would take 300,000 years for Earth astronauts to fly there using current rocketry.
Science is the most honest pursuit -- always searching for trustworthy evidence, then testing and retesting. We hope it eventually proves that humans are not alone in the universe.