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Nature authors on exoplanets: Earth-sized, not Earth-like


Here’s the abstract of a just-published paper:

Nature 470, 438 (24 February 2011) doi:10.1038/470438b

NASA’s Kepler mission to find habitable planets orbiting Sun-like stars has turned up its first rocky planet. The project uses the Kepler space telescope to identify extrasolar planets by watching for dips in the intensity of light from up to 170,000 target stars.

Natalie Batalha of San Jose State University in California and her group spotted Kepler 10b, which is about 4.56 times the mass of Earth. Although similar in size to Earth, its orbit lasts just 0.84 days, making it likely that the planet is a scorched, waterless world with a sea of lava on its starlit side.

Despite the pop science media’s tendency to reach for gee whiz adjectives, many arelaudably resisting a temptation to which Carl Sagan certainly succumbed at times, to write as though desired finds were just around the corner because … well, because otherwise we would seem too important. See, for example, “Hostility to life is norm for exoplanet, senior astronomer says” and “Immanuel Kant, meet Carl Sagan and Frank Drake.”

Or do they fear that funding would be cut? That seems unlikely because the public worldwide likes the show anyway. With apologies to Phantom of the Opera,

The whole cast disappears
But the crowd still cheers. ..

Which is as it should be. The trouble begins if some insist that the phantom is really an alien being.

(Note: : The Nature paper costs US$32.)

And how odd is that? I doubt very many of us seriously thought that the direction would be a net decline in probability of finding Earth-like planets. O'Leary
For exo-biologists, the pessimistic interpretation of all the new planetary finds is that the forms of possible solar systems is vastly more variable than ever expected, with "favourable forms" (e.g. small planets orbiting within the protective halo of gas-giants at greater distances) taking up a quickly shrinking proportion of the total. This makes "earth-like" systems less and less likely, not more so. SCheesman

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