1235!

1235: the number of new candidate planets uncovered by the Kepler Observatory which has a bead on over a hundred thousand stars between the constellations Lyra and Cygnus. A nice summary on the Universe Today blog, with two cautions:

The first planets discovered outside our solar system were pulsar planets. And these irradiated burned-out cinders never get their due. It’s almost as if astronomers are p***ed off they didn’t find the first planets orbiting a cute little yellow star like our own. This quote:

The first planets beyond our solar system were discovered in 1995.

Wrong. The first planets were found orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12 in 1992. Three years before planet hunters started finding hot Jupiters circling stars far far away.

Another oops:

In January 2011, Kepler confirmed the discovery of its first rocky planet, named Kepler-10b. The molten world measures just 1.4 times the size of Earth and is the smallest planet ever discovered outside our solar system.

Wrong again. The smallest known planet outside the solar system is orbiting that star PSR B1257+12. It masses about twice as much as the moon.

Pulsar planets are dismissed out of hand as having zero chance for life, but I think they teach an important lesson nonetheless. Planets are resilient, as indeed PSR B1257+12 went supernova and didn’t obliterate it’s whole system. At least the cores of these planets were left behind. An alternate view is that these planets were formed after the supernova stage. And that might be even more good news–that planets form in all sorts of circumstances, around both infant stars as well as dying ones. 

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, the Kepler findings, though expected, are really quite exciting. Astronomers will soon have several hundred planets from Earth-size all the way up to “super-Jupiters” to broaden the statistical survey of planets in the universe. After Kepler identifies candidates, other telescopes will be brought to bear to confirm these findings and bring out more detail.

Last snipe today: as much as I love biology, I do not expect that we will ever find life on other planets. I still think the search is worthwhile, but I think the wonder of interstellar exploration will be for the geology, chemistry, meteorology, and physics of these planetary systems. Of course, I’d be happy to be wrong. It’s my suspicion that the universe is empty of intelligent life, and probably other forms of life. I don’t have a real rational basis for this. And I know that finding would be deeply disappointing to many scientists, who entertain an obvious bias in favor of finding life. William Borucki, principal science investigator for the Kepler mission:

If we find that Earth’s are common in the habitable zones of stars, very likely that means life is common around these stars.

Nice optimism, but there is no scientific basis for this statement. Until we can see it, we have no idea about life beyond the Earth.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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