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I recently attended a NASA lecture about planets outside our solar system. During the last few years, hundreds of them have been detected, some resembling Jupiter or Venus, some being surprisingly similar to our earth.

As these extremely distant objects reflect little or no light, their detection is mostly indirect. Currently, there are four ways: Doppler shift, astrometric, transit and gravitational lensing methods. A very nice description of all these can be found at NASA.

What struck me during the lecture was that this new knowledge is primarily not created with vast arrays of new radio telescopes or Hubble-like space based observatories. It is all about patiently collecting massive amounts of data, computing it and presenting it in a synchronized way. For instance with the transit method, tiny but consistent changes in the light emitted by a star give away the planet orbiting it. Sometimes several years of measurements are needed, as orbital cycles can be very long.

Long time ago I visited the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with my friend Petri Helenius. While we were watching the Space Shuttle being cleaned up for the next mission, a simultaneus thought occurred to us – ‘Yes, I could take that job – even just cleaning up that thing on the ground’.


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