Then again, the stars often have aligned for the 28-year-old astronomer, whose drive to find life beyond our solar system was born at a time when scientific breakthroughs have made such a thing possible. He was studying for his doctorate when
The result of what he and other scientists found was dramatic: tens of billions of potentially Earthlike planets in the
Our home planet, it seems, is among many.
"We're not as special as we think we are," he said.
Coughlin, who speaks Friday night at the
"It was a big playground," he said. "There's just so much to look at, so much to study."
Coughlin works for the
Since its launch in 2009, Kepler's telescope has been staring at about 150,000 stars near the swan-shaped Cygnus constellation. But even high-powered telescopes in space aren't strong enough to see oxygen-rich, green and blue planets. So how do we know they could be that way?
The short answer: Light tells us a lot.
Scientists like Coughlin track the stars Kepler monitors. When black dots drift in front of those distant suns, they take note. If those drifts repeat at a regular interval, odds are good that it's an orbiting planet.
But that's just the beginning of what they can hypothesize. If the intervals happen quickly, it's likely the planet is close to its sun, with a high surface temperature. If the intervals are long, it's probably far away, and cool. To be classified as an "exoplanet," scientists have determined a "habitable" or in the "Goldilocks zone," which is neither too hot nor too cold and holds the highest chances of supporting life.
"It's like a puzzle," Coughlin said.
The first exoplanets were discovered in the 1990s, and, following the Kepler spacecraft's studies of the cosmos, that number is now beyond 3,000, he said.
Coughlin believes that, in the decades to come, it's highly likely a flesh-and-blood Earthlike planet, rich in oxygen and filled with vast oceans, will be conclusively found.
When asked whether he believes there's life beyond Earth, he turns the question on its head. Given that Kepler has helped uncover the possibility of tens of billions of planets that behave like Earth, he said it's "statistically improbable" there isn't one out there.
Coughlin, who has lived in
Coughlin is happy to share his work with others in the community and glad to have landed in
WHAT: "The Search for Habitable Planets," a talk by
WHEN: Hourlong shows at
INFO: Space is limited, with only 28 seats in the planetarium. Ages 8 and older. For information, call 360-362-7049.
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