While much remains unknown about the planet Kepler-22b, discovered on December 5, 2011, it has already captured the public’s imagination in the way reserved for truly monumental scientific discoveries. 

A quick breakdown of what know two days after the discovery was announced:

  • It is approximately 2.4x the size of Earth.
  • It is 600 light years away from Earth.
  • The planet resides in the “Goldilocks” zone – the distance from its sun makes it not too hot, not too cold.

What we don’t know:

  • Surface composition – could be liquid, gas, or solid at this point.
  • Mass/density – with an Earth-like density, it could have the mass of 13 Earths.
  • Atmosphere – this is nearly a deal-breaker. Estimates of surface temperatures go from 22 degrees C to -11 degrees C depending on whether or not an atmosphere is present to create a greenhouse effect.
  • Life — we don’t know whether the planet can support life, much less whether it has life on it. The list goes on and on from this point– we just do not know that much.

Regardless of what we know or don’t know, you need only to run a Google news search to see the varied headlines and reactions to the potential of another habitable world. Everything from speculation on the planet’s composition to speculation on what type of life may exist there. Me? I’m afraid to get my hopes up. But in spite of myself, I’m fairly excited by the prospects regardless. 

Stephen Hawking once remarked that the biggest threat to humanity is also one that nobody really bothers or likes to think about — we have all our eggs in one planetary basket. It’s not keeping me up at night, but it’s a valid concern. It’s not like our planet hasn’t been the venue for a massive cataclysmic event caused by extra-planetary actor before. If life and sentience in this universe is as rare as our (minimal) foray into implies, you’d think one of our priorities would focus on its preservation. Yet the space agenda  has simply been downsized over the past couple of decades. It simply hasn’t been paying dividends in our short-term perspectives.

My partial cynicism comes from a childhood sureness that I would be a part of the generation that put it all aside to focus on what’s important on the cosmic scale. To out-do those damn baby boomers and step foot on a planet we could eventually call home. That didn’t happen, and while I’m still relatively young, I doubt any significant progress is made in my lifetime towards humanity’s colonization of the stars. Fortunately, I also bear doubt I’ll see some kind of extinction event; I’ll go to the grave just believing it’ll eventually happen, and my descendants may be caught with their pants down.

All of this leads me to think, so what? We are discovering potentially habitable planets that are (at this point) too far to technically reach. Great. Who’s going to pour billions into the research and development to actually make a serious attempt for study and exploration? What’s going to galvanize and energize a serious effort before it’s too late? We’ve got “real” problems to deal with, politicians to tear down, and sex scandals to occupy our fruit fly attention spans. I realize it’s supremely pessimistic of somebody who admittedly is a giant sucker for speculative thought, but call it a defense mechanism.  

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About imran

Twenty-something in Washington, DC.

2 responses to “kepler-22b”

  1. Rahul Tilva says :

    I think about these same things all the time. Maybe because i’m obsessed with space in a ‘nerd-in-awe’ way, or that I like to imagine things in a post-apocalyptic view. Its good to step back and put things in perspective. The problems here on our tiny planet, are so insignificant; OMG another political sex-scandal or WOW I cant believe Lady Gaga wore that!?. Meanwhile we have the entire universe (or multiverse) in front of us for exploration. The news headlines that catch my eye are always the ones about a breakthrough in space-exploration, whether it be new probe results on Europa or even just taking a look at how far Voyager is from home.

    Sometimes I think that space is the only solution to raising humanity out of our petty squabbles. Something that can unite everyone to work towards a common goal. It pains me to hear how much funding is being cut to space programs. Maybe Kepler 22-b is habitable, maybe its not. But there are 200 Billion stars in our Galaxy alone, and of that there are approximately 90 Billion that have planets. I think even within our own Galaxy, there is a good chance there is a rock somewhere similar to our own. Maybe there is life, maybe there isn’t, but doesn’t that prospect of exploration bring back a child-like drive to learn?

    I agree that Humanity needs to think FAR into the future. So what if these stars are hundreds of LY away? We have got to start somewhere, lets say Mars, then maybe a Moon of Jupiter or Saturn. I hope to see progress in space during my lifetime, maybe even hope to set foot on the Moon or even Mars. I don’t know if I can hope for much else, unless I can use cryogenic freezing to send myself to the future, or have my body flown on a rocket into space.

    For now, I keep this as my desktop background:

    The beautiful picture taken from the far side of Saturn by the cassini probe really puts things into scale. It reminds me that WE (the tiny dot to the left of Saturn near the outer ring) have a lot of work to do.

    Good blog bro.

  2. imran says :

    Nice image — and yeah, we do need to think farther into the future than we do now. Western civilization would be a truly advanced civilization if it got to that point where we could think on that scale as a society. The problem is that any science/technology research that’s categorically not “good business” in the shorter term (i.e. isn’t profitable to do in the private sector) ultimately end up being at the mercy of people who work on election cycles and are too afraid of the long view.

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