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What does Kepler-186F mean?
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I sat alone on the upper deck of our research ship as we moved into deep water off the coast of Colombia.
The night was moonless and the water very still. The day had been interesting.

As we conducted near shore research a couple of men emerged from the jungle and fired shots at us with their Uzis.

We had a government permit to be there, but then drug lords don't really recognize permits. We moved far offshore to conduct work on oceanic tectonics.

Now I sat there staring up at the millions of stars that make up our Milky Way. The night sky seemed alive. For several hours I gazed the heavens studying the canvas that our earth floats through in space.

Even in remote parts of Dawson County it is all but impossible to see such a sight. Our naturally humid air, the pollution that covers the metro area and the light from our lamps mask all but the brightest stars from our view.

Some nights are better than others, but no one here gets to see the total beauty that space offers. That does not mean it is not there. We just cannot see it.

Of course observatories in high desert areas and now on orbiting satellites have much better views than even those I witnessed that evening at sea. These devices continue to open up the wonders that make up our universe. Observations flood in as scientists add new pieces to an incredibly beautiful and complex puzzle. Are we alone or are we but one planet amongst millions?

For hundreds of years man has struggled with his place in the universe. For some the quest conflicted directly with those that tried to trample the fact that Earth is but one of many.

Brilliant visionaries died at the hands of those that believed this planet was the center of the universe; that the sun revolved around us.

People were imprisoned because they dared to suggest the earth was not flat and that there were other planets in space much larger than our own.

Many people still fear the fact that in reality, we as a species, are not that significant when considering the universe. One has the right to remain ignorant. That does not give them the right to force their ignorance on others.

Recently one of our best orbiting observatories found a planet now called Kepler-186F. Located about 500 light years away it joins the almost 1,000 planets that have been identified in recent years.

Kepler-186F is earth-like and could quite possibility be a candidate to host life. Calculations would suggest that there are more than 17 billion earth-size planets in the Milky Way alone. That does not even consider other galaxies.

So the question is this. If we are not alone, how will we rank amongst those planets with civilizations? Where does our maker place us in the standings? Would we be perceived as an ignorant species that kills its own, is destroying its very planet and is immersed in petty political issues? What does the report card or job performance review look like on mankind? Are we to remain so arrogant as to think that of the 17 billion none have any form of life or advanced beings? Do we remain stuck in the notion that our world is flat? How will our yard look should our neighbors pay us a visit?

The next time you have a few minutes some evening, gaze at the heavens.

While not the absolute best view we are far enough out rurally to still see something of our universe. Take a second to ponder our collective report card; and wave "hi" to all those neighbors out there on other planets.

They might just be doing a bit better than we are.

Charlie Auvermann is a longtime Dawson County resident and former editor of the Dawson Community News. He is currently the executive director of the Development Authority of Dawson County.