Although the main payload onboard the Kepler spacecraft consists of instruments to detect other worlds, a second package reminds anyone who may intercept the craft millennia from now of the hopes of the generation that launched it. Over a six-month period, tens of thousands of people submitted messages explaining why they thought the Kepler mission is important. These were gathered onto a DVD and attached to the spacecraft.
Many of the messages highlighted Kepler?s scientific objectives. Chris Hall, from Virginia, noted that ?This mission serves to expand our exploration of two of humanity?s deepest questions?are there other worlds out there like our own, and if so, are there other entities who may be seeking knowledge of us?? Many described this scientific mission as a manifestation of a need to reach out into space. As Wanvisa Permtongchuchai of Thailand put it, ?Exploration is the nature of humankind.? Indeed, some spoke as if they had no choice but to participate, as in Martha Harris of Kentucky?s statement that ?The Kepler Mission is humanity?s cry in the dark. I can?t not be a part of this ? even if only in name.?
Others emphasized humanity?s curiosity, as in the message of Anthorr Nomchong of Australia: ?curiosity is what drives us and what we will be able to share if we do find out that we are finally not alone on this small cosmic speck of dust.? Annabelle Bresnahan of New York reminded us that such curiosity knows no age limits: ?The one thing my daughter doesn?t question is her own curiosity. Kepler is important because we are all still children.?
Still others stressed that finding other worlds can give us a greater appreciation of our own world, as well as increased self-understanding. Bob O?Donovan of California, for example, suggested that ?Space exploration and the discovery of other civilizations is by far the greatest challenge of humanity. The immenseness and wideness of space makes us appreciate the fragility and divine beauty of the Earth.?
A similar position was expressed by Abraham Samma of the United Republic of Tanzania when he wrote, ?The search for other worlds with perhaps other intelligent beings is a noble plan. We as humans would hopefully get to know and love our home more if we continue to further our knowledge of other worlds.? Christina Aas of Norway emphasized the value of increased self-awareness: ?It would be a great waste if we were the only living beings in the entire universe. By searching for other life forms out there we might learn more about ourselves in the process. We will hopefully also see that whatever conflicts exist between people, in the larger picture we are all the same ??
While some of the people submitting messages recognized the distinct possibility of not detecting Earth-like planets in other solar systems, most were optimistic. And as Keith Mansfield of the United Kingdom observed, the discovery of small, rocky planets around other suns would be especially fitting, given the spacecraft?s namesake: ?If Kepler finds many terrestrial-style planets we can target some of our SETI in their direction. If it finds none, then we would have to reevaluate our ideas about our position in the universe. That seems unlikely though. It was Kepler himself, by demonstrating that orbits are ellipses rather than circles, who helped shift humanity?s viewpoint in the first place. No longer was it even possible for us to be at the very center of everything. It would be a surprise if the telescope named after the man were to indicate that we are, after all, uniquely privileged.?
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Dr. Vakoch is Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute. His work is supported through the Adopt a Scientist program by Jamie Baswell.