Kepler: The Man

In today’s example of synchronicity, I’ve been working my way (very slowly) through The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow and today I learned why the Kepler mission is named after Johannes Kepler. I guess if I was a deep reader of astronomy, I would already know about Kepler. But I’m not, so I didn’t. Until now. It’s time to rectify this gap in my (limited) knowledge of the history of astronomy. Today, the subject of my study (prior to the Feb 11th Tweetup) is Johannes Kepler. So who was this Kepler guy and why did NASA choose his name as the Mission name?

Johannes Kepler (1571AD – 1630AD) was a German mathematican, astronomer, and astrologer, back when the latter two were  much more closely related than they are now. He was a key figure in the 17th-century scientific revolution that repudiated much of what people had believed since the time of Ancient Greece and provided the foundation for much of modern science. Kepler contributed two very notable ideas to this revolution of knowledge (1) the Kepler laws of planetary motion and (2) the Keplerian refracting telescope, which led to the modern refractive telescopes in use today.

There are three of Kepler laws of planetary motion. The first two were published in 1609 after he had analyzed astronomical observations of his mentor, Tycho Brahe (a Danish noble who was a noted astronomer as well). I understand Kepler’s first two laws:

1. The orbit of every planet is an ellipse with the Sun at one of the two foci.

2. A line joining a planet and the Sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time.

It took him a while to formulate the third law, and he didn’t publish it until 1619. This one I don’t really understand, being the non-math-brained person that I am:

3. The square of the orbital period of a planet is directly proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit.

(For you science lovers that want to learn more, Wikipedia has a basic explanation of Kepler’s three laws.)

Isaac Newton later used Kepler’s laws in his own theory of gravity, about a century later. Kepler’s work was that important.

The design of the Keplerian Telescope, published as Dioptrice, was an improvement on Galileo’s original design, published in 1609. Instead of using a concave lens (as Galileo had done), Kepler’s design proposed using a convex lens. This widened the field of view significantly although it did invert the image. Why was this telescope design such a breakthrough? Kepler originally felt that this design improved on Galileo’s design because it collected more light, which increased the magnification, allowing the viewer to see more detail in the small area of sky where he was pointing the telescope. It also allowed a way to insert a measuring device into the area being viewed, the first time anyone could then measure the distance between two objects over time.

The big downside of both Galileo’s and Kepler’s designs were that they required really long telescopes to overcome the abberations of the simple objective lens, along the lines of 130 to 150 feet for a lens was six inches across. Kepler never actually built a telescope using his design; he considered his design as purely theoretical. People did later build a Keplerian telescope, but it was hard to use, given the very long tube length required (the drawing above shows a 45-meter version built in 1673). Given the materials of the day used to construct the tube, it was almost impossible to keep it from bending and therefore affecting the images. (In 1668, Robert Hooke demonstrated the use of mirrors inside the tube to reflect the images and shorten the tube, a major breakthrough. A telescope formerly 60 feet long could now be shortened to 12 feet long, and that was much easier to support and stabilize.)

As part of his study of optics, Kepler wrote Astronomiae Pars Optica (The Optical Part of Astronomy) in 1604, which is generally regarded as the first description of how humans see images as inverted and reversed by the lens of our eye onto the retina.

Kepler was into a lot of things. He also explained that tides are caused by the Moon, discovered that Sun rotates about its axis, investigated the formation of pictures with a pin hole camera, and designed eyeglasses for near- and far-sightedness. (I especially appreciate that last bit, being someone who has needed vision correction since third grade!)

In one more example of synchronicity, an European unmanned resupply spacecraft is scheduled to deliver cargo to the International Space Station in February 2011. The name of that vehicle? The Johannes Kepler ATV-002 (Automated Transfer Vehicle).

It’s an amazing thing to dive into the life and work of someone I never heard about, not being the scientific type in school or in life. I’m playing catchup now, and the two hours I’ve just spent reading an introduction to Kepler’s life and work makes me realize how much I have to learn. It’s a journey, though, and today is just the second step on what I think will be a deepening of my fascination with the starry, starry night sky and the worlds we have yet to find and explore.


Kepler: First Contact

I’m so excited — I’m going to the NASA Tweetup at Ames Research Center on February 11! I am one of only 100 tweeters invited (it was a lottery drawing from all applicants) so I want to study up on what they’re doing at Ames and be able to really absorb everything I can while I’m there.

The two projects we’ll be focusing on are the Kepler and SOFIA missions. I am studying Kepler first because its mission statement really grabbed me: Kepler: A Search for Habitable Planets. Wow, like something out of sci-fi movie, only it’s reality right NOW! The picture here is of a Kepler-10b, a rocky planet about 1.4 times the size of Earth, announced on January 10, 2011. It took eight months of Kepler data to make the calculations that discovered Kepler-10b. I’m reading up on how the Kepler telescope works tomorrow.

Kepler is only looking at a very small part of the Milky Way. How small? Well, check out this graphic from NASA that shows the Kepler’s area of concentration. Go on, click on the graphic and it will display larger and then you can really try to grasp how huge our galaxy is (and we’re only one galaxy, there are so many more out there, it’s mind-blowing, seriously!).

Next time you look up in the night sky and see the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra constellations in our Galaxy, think of Kepler, looking there for more planets, more chances to find new places, and perhaps, new races.

Interested in reading more about Kepler’s mission? Here you go: Kepler Mission on the NASA web site.

Wilder Ranch Run

It was warm and sunny, muddy and fun today at Wilder. I was inspired to drive over there (yay for working from home) as it is part of the Santa Cruz Half-Marathon course that I did last year and my nephew and I have signed up for this year (April 10).

I took along the pocket camera (Nikon, of course) to see if I could get some good shots of Wilder Ranch views for my photo business (

Taking photos is a good way to break up a run and combine two things in the same window of time. And working a split shift today meant I had the time in the middle of the day, so I used it wisely.

Happy New Year!

My last day in Vancouver and my first run of 2011. Just after sunrise, cold (slightly below freezing), and sunny, I stopped along the way to take some photos since the light was so beautiful. This one, a sculpture on the waterfront along the seawall, framing the sunrise through the skyscrapers of Yaletown, captured the mood best.

And with a run, I’ve gotten 2011 off to a good start!

Home after the holidays

Long drive home from Hemet today, but with *much* better weather than the trip down last Wednesday. Lots of blue skies, puffy white cottonball clouds, and green hills.

NaNoWriMo Day 28: Done

It’s over, she exclaimed, with both a sigh of relief and a double fist pump of triumph. It may be the worst first draft ever created in the history of the planet, but it’s finished and I’m going to bury it for at least a month before I touch it.

He shot her a quizzical look.

If I look at it now, she said by way of explanation, I’ll just drag the whole mess to the trash and delete it. I think there is actually a pretty decent story in there but it’s going to take a lot of work to polish it up into anything even remotely presentable to the outside world.

And with that, she closed down Scrivener and headed out for a long-overdue run.

NaNoWriMo Day 26: 43,534 words

It’s coming down to the wire now, close but not yet close enough to think my plot lines will converge and provide a decent first draft and 50,000 words. I’ve got things hanging out all over and am still being surprised by the twists and turns of my ever-growing cast. My loose ends are bedeviling me, but consistency isn’t the point of a first draft. Getting the story written down and hoping it has “good bones” at the end of the month is the goal.

Today’s excerpt:

The escape didn’t work quite the way Susie and her support team had planned it. The ideal outcome had been to spirit mother and child out through a series of handoffs, from laundry basket to stairwells to little-used hallways, with badged employees providing access at each point, then out into the parking lot to a waiting van, and from there to freedom. Susie had trusted the few coworkers involved in the scheme, all of them sympathetic to the child whose life would never be even close to normal if she remained a captive at The Institute. But one of those co-workers must have turned against the rest, Susie thought, as loud alarms sounded and the emergency lighting activated, signaling a code red in terms that no one could miss. Mayree and Hazel ran for their lives, following their latest guide across the parking lot.