WAITING FOR “EARTH 2”

On June 16th, Scientific American posted a quite amazing, quite historic story on its web site that went largely unnoticed by the Outside World. Outside the astronomy community that is; more specifically, outside the residents of the Wisteria Lane of the astronomy community that is interested in the hunt for and study of exo-planets – planets that circle other stars Out There in the Great Black.

The SciAm story was announcing that KEPLER, the planet-hunting telescope, has identified more than 700 candidate planets in orbit around faraway, alien suns. That on its own made the story exciting. But tucked away in the report was one line, one quote, that when I read it literally made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end…

“The cat is out of the bag,” says Natalie Batalha, a professor of physics and astronomy at San Jose State University and a co-investigator on the Kepler team. “Kepler has seen Earth-size planet candidates.

” Wow… now that was something, something worth celebrating even. Until now, all the planet candidates spotted by Kepler, or by any exo-planet hunting tech or team, have been bigger than Earth. Even the planet closest in size to Earth – Corot7b – is 1.6x the diameter of our own planet, and it’s yet another “sun-hugger”, i.e. it whizzes and whips and whoops and screams around its parent star so close and so quickly that its year is measured not in Earth months or even days, but in hours. To think that Kepler has finally found exo-planet candidates the same size as Earth is nothing less than head-spinning.

And I’ll be honest, it has finally, FINALLY, made me excited about this hunt for exo-planets.

Why haven’t I been until now? Well, absolutely no disrespect intended to the amazing teams behind Kepler and all the other exo-planet hunting projects, but so far I just haven’t been able to bring myself to actually think of the planetary candidates discovered so far as actual planets, I just haven’t. It’s not them, it’s me; in my head and my heart, I simply can’t find it in myself to believe that something that dwarves Jupiter and races around its parent star in a matter of days or even hours is a real planet, you know? There’s something just not right about it, to me anyway.

And yes, it’s a purely personal thing; each discovery is amazing, fantastic, a triumph of science… but to me, the space-mad kid who always hid in the library at school breaktimes reading science books rather than go and kick a ball outside, has grown up on one lush, green, sopping-wet rocky planet, and has been in love all his life with another, redder, colder, drier rocky planet. I mean, come on… look at the beautiful worlds of our own solar system: Mercury with its towering scarps and great basins… Venus with its great volcanic plains… Earth with its rainforests and icefields…. Mars with its sky-scraping volcanoes and axe wound canyons… they’re real planets, they’re real Worlds. So is Jupiter with its caramel- and butterscotch-hued cloud bands and storms, and Saturn with its magnificent rings. But… all those gaseous behemoth freaks Out There, the “Hot Jupiters” and “Super Gas Giants” found tearing around their stars at breakneck spead, so close they’re almost ploughing through its prominences and flares like dolphins crashing througfh surf, they’re not real planets!

To me, and again, this is a purely personal thing, they’re not planets at all. They’re abominations, freaks. They’re just plain Wrong.

But there it was, in the SciAm story, confirmation, of a sort, that Kepler has found planetary candidates the same size as Earth. Real planets, not pretenders. Planets deserving of the title, not imposters.

At last. At last. After all these months I can go outside on a clear night, look up, and allow myself to think that my eyes are gazing upon a second Earth, a distant Earth, the fabled and long-awaited “Earth 2” that mankind has sought and dreamed about all these centuries and millennia. Now, on these balmy summer nights, I can go up to Kendal Castle after midnight and, whilst waiting for a display of noctilucent clouds to appear, gaze up at the Kepler field of view – that unassuming area of sky that lies between Vega and Altair, where the Milky Way’s stars are as thick as pollen – and allow myself to think “In there, somewhere, is a world like this one…”

And that’s exactly what I did this morning. After enjoying several beautiful displays of noctilucent clouds from up there since the beginning of June, I was up at the castle at 2am again, patiently… ok, maybe not so patiently! …scanning the northern sky through my binoculars, searching – in vain, as it turned out – for the telltale signs of an imminent display of NLC: a faint streamer of blue-white light hovering over the northern fells, a subtle billow of pale grey drifting above the north-western hills, a cross-hatched, glowing patch rising up from behind and throwing into stark silhouette the faraway mountains of the Lake District… nothing. So, instead, I turned my attention to the “Kepler Field”, almost overhead, and sweeping my binoculars across it delighted at the sight of countless thousands of peppercorn stars drifting through my field of view, shining like specks of diamond dust thrown into the air and carried through it on the warm summer wind…

…and looking at those stars I wondered, “Which one of you is Sol 2? Which one of you dim, distant suns has another Earth sweeping around it? Because one of you does; one of you shines on the ice-capped mountains, surf-edged oceans and dune-crossed deserts of a world the same size as mine, that is as warm as mine, and is the twin of mine. One of you rises and sets at the begging and end of a day as long as the ones on this world. One of you blazes in the eyes of billions of living creatures, perhaps some as intelligent, curious and frustrated as the human beings that inhabit my world…”

And that’s why the SciAm story, and that quote from Natalie Batalha, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. It meant that we are close, so close, THIS close, to the day when the world is told, after all these long years of waiting, that we have found It, the first world like our own. It won’t be long now, the Big Day, surely? Weeks? Months? It’s so close now I can almost reach into this computer monitor and touch it… almost.

But that’s okay, I can wait a little while longer, because actually I don’t need the Kepler team to tell me what I already know. All I have to do is look up at the Kepler Field of View through my binoculars on any clear night and I feel it here, in my heart, in my gut, that out there, right now, waltzing in oh so glorious slow motion around one of the peppercorn stars in that patch of sky, is a world, a real world, a genuine world, with gurgling rivers, tumbling streams and hiss-schissing oceans as beautiful as any of those found here on Earth. A world with its own Grand Canyon, Mt Everest and Great Rift Valley. A world with its own continents, mountain ranges and rainforests. A world that, perhaps, has its own villages, towns and cities, that is home to a civilisation the equal or even the superior of our own, with its own Van Goghs, Mozarts and Da Vinci’s, its own poetry, symphonies and works of art…

The great day is coming.

You can feel it too, can’t you…?

STUART ATKINSON

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  1. Perhaps I’m being a bit nitpicky but “something that dwarves Jupiter and races around its parent star in a matter of days or even hours” is getting to be less typical of radial velocity discoveries all the time. About half of all known exoplanets are 1AU or more from their sun, and the average mass is coming down, too. Admittedly they’re still a long way from being Earths, but ‘mild Jupiters with a smattering of hot super-earths’ isn’t far from the truth.

    Also, if our Solar System had a hot Jupiter I bet you’d be really enthusiastic about it: something as bright as the full Moon, disc clearly discernible to the naked eye, appearing at eclipses or on exceptionally clear (or perhaps misty?) Spring evenings over low horizons. A spectacular sight when you could get it.

    • phoenixpics
    • June 24th, 2010

    Aw, you can’t dampen my enthusiasm, Daniel, I’ve lived this stuff since I was knee-high to a jawa. I know my sky is full of Earths; I just need science to catch up with me 🙂

  2. Not wishing to dampen your enthusiasm, but … with “Earth-size planet candidates” they mean by now “bodies with the same diameter as our Earth but a mass completely unknown”: Most of the 400 ‘withheld’ planet candidates have not had their masses measured yet through radial velocities measurements, which is very difficult if it is below several Earth masses.

    Now there is no clear correlation between the diameters and masses of exoplanets (to the contrary; bodies with vastly different masses can have the same diameter), so those “Earth-size planet candidates” could actually have several Earth masses and thus be ‘super-Earths’ with very different properties than our world. In a few months we may (or may not) all be wiser …

  3. Beautiful and enthralling!
    I share your dream and excitement. Though I like the freaks too. They are majestic in their own right. And they can have moons the size of Earth too 😉

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