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.