FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
|WHITE DWARF RESEARCH CORPORATION|
Contact: Travis Metcalfe (303-497-8326; firstname.lastname@example.org)
ADOPT A STAR, GET A PLANET TOO! (MAYBE)
BOULDER, CO () -- When astronomers find the first twin Earth, some lucky person may be able to "claim" it as their own, thanks to a new adopt-a-star program. In the spirit of encouraging public participation in, and support for, the search for alien worlds, a global team of astronomers has teamed up with a non-profit organization to put a special group of 100,000 stars up for adoption. Those stars are the targets of NASA's Kepler mission, which is searching for any planets they may host.
The adopt-a-star program, named the "Pale Blue Dot" project, has similarities with pearl hunting. Some tropical tourist destinations have stands where a vacationer can pay to open oysters, and then keep any pearls they find. In the case of the adopt-a-star program, the donor hopes to find an astronomical "pearl" in the form of a newly discovered world.
"This project educates the public about the Kepler satellite, but it also makes them stakeholders in its success by allowing anyone to adopt a star that NASA will search for planets," said astronomer Travis Metcalfe, who leads the fundraising project. "How cool is that?"
A modest $10 donation through the project's website (http://whitedwarf.org/palebluedot/) allows the adopter to select a star from the Kepler target list. All contributions to the Pale Blue Dot project help support the scientific analysis of Kepler data. NASA funding for such analysis has lagged behind mission development funds in recent years, hence the urgent need for additional support.
"NASA's budget is heavily earmarked, and funding for follow-up research has been stagnant in recent years," said Metcalfe. "We decided to engage the public directly for some grassroots financial support of this crucial element of the program."
Just as diamond graders judge gems by the four "C's" -- carat, cut, color, and clarity -- astronomers classify planets by key characteristics, including physical size, mass, and orbit (which affects temperature). Their goal is to find an Earth-sized world in a warm, Earth-like orbit. Kepler is the first mission capable of detecting such a small planet orbiting a distant star.
Out of more than four million stars within Kepler's field of view, astronomers have selected about 100,000 targets most likely to have detectable planets. To bring that star catalog to life, the Pale Blue Dot team marked them in Google Sky. Potential adopters can browse the catalog before selecting a star to adopt.
Hundreds of people signed up early to get their first choice of stars. Donors receive a certificate of adoption by e-mail, and updates when any planets are discovered around the adopted star. Each star is tagged with the name of the sponsor, both in Google Sky and in a text version of the catalog, so unlike so-called "star naming" services, no two people can adopt the same star.
NASA has not yet released the official catalog of target stars, so the Pale Blue Dot project is using a self-compiled list of likely targets. If an adopted star does not end up in the official catalog once it is issued, the associated donor will make a new selection.
"This is a creative way of involving the community," said Danish professor Jørgen Christensen-Dalsgaard, who organized the international team that is conducting the research. "The present list of adopters is already fairly impressive, and of course the funding that it brings in is useful."
The outreach and fundraising effort is being coordinated by White Dwarf Research Corporation, a non-profit located in Boulder, Colorado. Dedicated to scientific research and public education, the organization hosts the project web pages and accepts donations on behalf of the research team free of charge. If most of the Kepler target stars are ultimately adopted, the resulting endowment is expected to provide significant support to the research project throughout the lifetime of the mission.
Pale Blue Dot project webpage: http://whitedwarf.org/palebluedot/
Star Catalog in Google Sky: http://whitedwarf.org/palebluedot/sky.html
Information about the Kepler mission: http://www.nasa.gov/kepler/
Images: (click for higher resolution)
Credit: Pale Blue Dot project