Thursday, May 19, 2016

Number of confirmed exoplanets doubles



Credit: NASA

Big news from space was promised by NASA last week.

Naturally, this led to copious, even if misguided, speculation among Space People True Believers that disclosure was finally happening. What we actually got was rather significant in its own right. Researchers at NASA's Kepler mission announced the discovery of 1,200 exoplanets. This has come about due to new software that increases the ability to discern signal from noise in the massive amounts of Kepler data.

There's always the same question with these announcements: could any of these planets be habitable? Of course nothing is certain whatsoever, but a recent paper published in Astrophysical Journal estimates that given discoveries from Kepler and Earth-based astronomy, the number of Earth-like worlds may be around nine. Another article from 2013 estimates 8.8 billion habitable planets in this galaxy alone.

One interesting bit I gleaned from the initial article announcing the 1,200 is the methodology with Kepler. Kepler does best with short-period planets, meaning exoplanets that take a small period of time to transit their star. Makes sense. You're going to have more opportunities to catch the dimming of starlight with a short-period planet than you would another further out. For example, someone observing our solar system from the outside might more easily catch a glimpse of Venus or Mercury than say, Jupiter. Even though Jupiter is the largest of all the planets in our star system, it would cross the observer's field of vision far less frequently.

That might not be such a bad thing if someone's true interest is in habitable planets. Our outer planets are not, at least from what we know right now, habitable. For that, you need to get closer to the Sun and towards the much-discussed "Goldilocks zone." That is where you will find the only planet in our solar system with oceans of any kind, something that is necessary for life (again, as we understand it.) The fact that Earth is rarity even in its own solar system might be indicative that such warm worlds with large oceans are in fact rare pretty much everywhere.

What does this all mean? Well, sometimes I actually like to feel insignificant. In the tradition of Kafka, sometimes I want to shrink until I'm nothing and thereby render my problems the same size or me too small for them to find me. Realizing your place in a galaxy with over a thousand other planets...at the very bare minimum...and in a universe with who knows how many galaxies, that's good way to feel like a speck. So, putting it all in perspective, I'm just a speck. And so are you.

Not insulting. Just sayin'...


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