NASA mission puts students in charge of search for Earth-like planets

World Today

Scientists around the world have been searching for planets that can support life. NASA has sent up the Kepler space probe to search other solar systems.

But one difference with this mission is that it’s run by students.

CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy visited their command center at the University of Colorado.

More than eight years ago, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Kepler space telescope blasted off into the sky. Armed with an instrument called a photometer, Kepler began looking for Earth-like planets in our galaxy.

Bill Possel, who is the LASAP Mission operations director, helps manage the mission at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“No other university in the world that I know of operates spacecraft like this,” Possel said.

Two dozen students control the Kepler spacecraft and make sure it’s providing the science needed from this control room at the school’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

“We don’t just get coffee or something. We’re actually commanding the spacecraft,” Ginger Beerman, student command controller said.

Students at the university have managed NASA missions since 1981. They’re handling four of them right now, including Kepler. It’s quite a bargain for the space agency. Students undergo rigorous training and testing to be command controllers. Professional staff are always close by.

These are exciting times for those involved with Kepler. The telescope has discovered 2,300 confirmed planets orbiting around distant stars. A few them are about the same size as Earth and could have conditions, like liquid water, to support life.

“Before Kepler, we really didn’t have any Earth-like planets that we could see. Kepler has determined there’s lots of Earth-like planets out there,” Possel said.

The students check on Kepler once a week. Every three months they download all the spacecraft’s data. That work could pay off handsomely when these students begin applying for jobs.

The spacecraft is expected to run out of fuel next year. Meantime, it keeps hunting for life-friendly worlds, guided by this young team on Earth.