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How science proved sci-fi right

She isn’t one of those who nurtured childhood dreams of becoming a rocket scientist. Following in her parents’ footsteps, she had started out to be an MBA but was attracted to space science after seeing a TV series by author-astronomer Carl Sagan. She veered into physics and two decades later, she’s the hottest planet-hunter attached with Nasa.

Natalie Batalha, involved in Kepler — Nasa’s $550-million space telescope meant to look for Earth-like planets orbiting other stars — was in town to share her planet-hunting experience with schoolkids.

Her presentation, titled “Beyond The Cradle: Kepler’s Search for New Worlds”, at the Birla Institute of Technological Museum left children spellbound.

“Kepler has proved George Lucas was right in Star Wars,” she said. “There’s indeed a planet that has two sunrises and two sunsets.”

She was, of course, referring to Tatooine, the home planet of Luke and Anakin Skywalker. “The two suns of Kepler-16 — Star A and Star B — discovered by us aren’t very different from Tatoo I and Tatoo II depicted by Lucas.”

Habitable planets, far away from our solar system, were once the exclusive domain of science fiction. Now, Kepler enables humans to potentially discover them.

“Ever since we started our journey in March 2009, we’ve discovered 2,321 such Earth-like planets outside our solar system.” For instance, Kepler-10b is the first unquestionably rocky planet ever found beyond our solar system, and Kepler-22b is a world 2.4 times larger than Earth, that orbits its star. And then there is Kepler 20, the oddest family of five planets, including two rocky worlds about the size of Earth.

Kepler is staring at more than 1,50,000 stars continuously. “It detects exoplanets by noticing the tiny brightness dips caused when they transit — or cross the face of — these stars from the telescope’s perspective,” she said.

According to her, Kepler has proved that Earth is neither unique nor the centre of the universe. “The diversity of other worlds is perhaps greater than that depicted in all the science fiction novels and movies.”

She added, however, that pictures of exoplanets distributed by Nasa weren’t real photographs snapped by Kepler. “These are imaginary pictures created by our artists based on data collected by Kepler. You need a lot of imagination to be in science.”

Batalha wants more women to join space science. “I found careers in business pretty boring and switched to physics quite late at life. So I’ve been successful in inspiring my daughter to take up astronomy. Recently she’s joined an undergraduate course in physics,” said the proud mother.

So deep is her passion to spread the message of science that she’s been travelling across India to talk to schoolkids despite a fracture in her right leg that has forced her to walk on crutches.