Spying On Faraway Planets

The Kepler space telescope, launched by NASA earlier this year, already is paying some very cool dividends.

Gas giant detected by Kepler telescope

Gas giant detected by Kepler telescope

The Kepler telecope is intended to identify planetary bodies in other solar systems and then determine which ones may be capable of supporting life.  In a test run, before official science operations have even begun, the telescope focused on a planet, called HAT-P-7, orbiting a star 1,000 light years away and was able to determine that the planet has an atmosphere.  Of course, it’s not a planet any of us would be interested in visiting — it is a gas giant slightly larger than Jupiter that is 26 times closer to the star than the Earth is to the Sun, and the planet orbits the star in a dizzying 2.2 days.  The dayside temperature of the planet is 4310 degrees Fahrenheit.  Be sure to bring a cool drink when you visit!

Planet HAT-P-7

Image of Planet HAT-P-7

Sometimes we forget how extraordinary our technological advances have been, so we should all pause for a moment and consider how amazing it is that we can figure out significant details about a planet that is more than 1,000 light years away — and remember, one light year is 5.88 trillion miles!

The NASA website and BBC reports on the discovery are here and here.

Full Of Promise But Disappointing, Like a Kel-Bowl-Pak

When we were kids, Mom would occasionally buy the Kellogg’s “Variety Pack” rather than a regular box of “cold cereal.” The “Variety Pack” had 8, or 10, or 12 very small boxes of different kinds of cereal. You might get Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops, and Corn Flakes, among others, in one Variety Pack, and then get All-Bran, Raisin Bran, and Froot Loops in another. The Variety Pack offered the luxury of choice and the chance to sample the newest cereal to roll off the Battle Creek assembly lines, but also offered an even more stimulating challenge — the challenge of successfully using the Kel-Bowl-Pak.

The Kel-Bowl-Pak

The Kel-Bowl-Pak

What cereal-loving child of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s did not attempt, at least once, to eat breakfast using the Kel-Bowl-Pak rather than pouring the cereal into a bowl? For the uninitiated, the Kel-Bowl-Pak was featured on every small Variety Pack box of cereal. The boxes held out the promise of deft, precision engineering, with carefully marked perforations, detailed illustrations and instructions on the side of the box, and an official, probably trademarked name — the “Kel-Bowl-Pak.” The concept was simple. The careful cereal eater was to follow the perforations and slice through the cardboard and underlying wax paper, primly fold back the cardboard and wax paper flaps like opening the double doors of the cabinets underneath the bathroom sink, and then pour milk into the exposed cereal and eat right out of the box. What could be cooler than that? You could picture rugged hikers munching cereal out of the Kel-Bowl-Pak while gazing at the sun rise over the Grand Canyon.

Unfortunately, the actual performance of the Kel-Bowl-Pak never seemed to live up to its promise. Inevitably, the cheap cardboard would rip under the pressure of pudgy fingers and safety scissors, or the wax paper would tear and cereal would spill everywhere. And, even if the perforations were followed and the cardboard and wax paper were opened with surgical precision, the remaining wax paper packaging would immediately leak once the milk was added, and the cereal eater would be treated to a few spoonfuls of cereal from a soggy box that left smeared milk on the kitchen table.

And so, the Kel-Bowl-Pak was full of apparent promise, but ultimately disappointing. Sometimes, life is like that.