Discussion and news about the modern effort to understand the nature of life on Earth, finding planets around other stars, and the search for life elsewhere in the universe

Monday, June 21, 2010

Swings and roundabouts

The hunt for terrestrial-type planets is hugely challenging, although steady progress is being made. Last week NASA's Kepler mission finally began to release data on some of its candidate planet-hosting stars. In a bit of controversial, but to some extent understandable maneuvering, the Kepler team has kept what are probably the juiciest systems to themselves. The New York Times had an excellent piece on this tale. Regardless of what data any of us get our sticky paws on there is still a big hurdle to deal with. Kepler is seeking the tiny dips in starlight when planets transit their stellar hosts, but this alone is not enough to either confirm with absolute certainty the presence of a planet, or to determine the mass and detailed orbital characteristics of new worlds. The next stage involves painstaking followup with ground-based telescopes equipped with exquisite spectrometers, seeking the wispy signs of Doppler shifting starlight due to the gravitational offsets induced by planets.

It's quite a bottleneck. It's also pushing the limits of experimental sensitivity as we seek planets equivalent to the Earth - where the stellar 'wobble' can be mere centimeters per second, the speed of a royal wave. Kepler hasn't even got to those candidates yet, with orbits close to 12 months in length we need the next several years to witness multiple  transits. There is no doubt that it will take a great amount of scientific cooperation and effort to finally nail down the number of Earth-equivalent worlds that Kepler sees.

Even then, what we'll end up with is really just (although 'just' is relative) a well defined estimate of how many such planets should exist galaxy-wide - together with some idea of their typical compositions and orbits. Bottom line is that the newspaper banner in three or four years will read something like '15 %' - this being the fraction of normal stars hosting small rocky worlds. Is that worth the $600 million for Kepler, plus many more millions for all the followup work ? Such is the nature of modern fundamental science. The Large Hadron Collider costs well in excess of $6 billion, that's about a billion per physics question that it might help answer. The overall cost of the Human Genome Project was about $3 billion - roughly a dollar a base-pair.

I'd argue that by comparison Kepler is positively efficient, but it does raise an interesting question. Just how much are we as a species willing to invest in the search to find other worlds and to seek out signs of other life in the universe ? It's not a cheap enterprise. For me though it is no less important than understanding fundamental physics, or our genetic blueprints. In fact I'd stick my neck out and suggest that unless we find new worlds, new biospheres, we will never have a way to place the Earth and ourselves in proper scientific context. The answer to our origins will come from seeing the bigger picture, and that is surely cheap at any price.


lbillings said...

Great post, Caleb, and very complementary to my own spin on Kepler's latest finds.

Like most basic research, the ROI for a mission like Kepler is pretty hard to quantify, but I agree with you that at a pricetag of ~$600 million, it's providing a lot of bang for the buck.

Relatedly, have you seen Greg Laughlin's formula for quantifying the value of extrasolar planets? Interesting stuff.


Lee Billings

Caleb Scharf said...

Lee - thanks for the comments. Yes, I have seen Greg Laughlin's planet valuation formula ! I thought about adding mention of this, so thanks for bringing that up.

Caleb Scharf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Caleb Scharf said...

..oh, and Lee, I thought your piece in Seed on this is terrific...

lbillings said...

Thrilled that you read it, Caleb, thanks! I'm glad you've started sharing your thoughts with a broader audience through your blog; only good things can come of it. Keep it up!

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