Other Worlds

16 December 2009


Perhaps in compensation for the overly romantic images of Mars from 19th century science and 20th century science-fiction, scientists today emphasize the barrenness of Mars, its lifelessness, and its differentness from the earth. But when I see the pictures of the Martian surface, I am struck by its similarity to our own planet.

Unlike the moon landing, which I watched on television as a young child, and which remains one of the few episodes from my early childhood that I clearly recall, where astronauts were seen against a black backdrop of stars, and the flag hung limply from a supporting arm, Mars looks a lot like home. It has an atmosphere. It has a day. The sky has color. There are rocks on the ground and wind has blown a reddish brown sand (a color strikingly similar to the deserts of Eastern Oregon) among and between these rocks. On a warm day, ordinary clothes and a respirator would be sufficient to venture onto the Martian surface. If a flag were planted on Mars, it would not need a supporting arm, since it would fly in the Martian wind.

The skeptics of life elsewhere in the universe must deal with the fact that, right next door, there is a planet with an atmosphere, so we know without going any further than our own solar system that smallish rocky planets with atmospheres are not unique. The other claims to cosmic uniqueness are being disproved as soon as the technological means are available to disprove them. For example, there is a large and growing body of evidence on extrasolar planets. We now know for a fact that there are planetary systems other than our own.

Since we already know that planetary atmospheres are not unique (from the example of Mars and of several planetary moons), and we know from the moons of Jupiter that volcanic activity is not unique to the earth, it would be foolish to suppose that these extrasolar planets are all without atmospheres, and if they are small, rocky planets, they will be, like Mars, places not unlike the earth. And among these places not unlike the earth, there will be very interesting places, beautiful places, places unique in their own way, and well worth seeing. It is entirely reasonable to want to see such places quite apart from the question of whether there is life or whether such places are inhabited by sentient creatures or civilizations.

Today the discovery of another extrasolar planet was widely reported. This planet is not all that much larger than the earth (it’s called a “super-earth” at about 6.5 earth masses). It orbits a small, red type M star rather smaller than the sun, but only about 40 light years away from us. The planet appears to be close to the star’s “habitable” zone, though probably on the hot side. Liquid water remains a possibility on the planet due to its greater pressure.

The discovery was made without use of the latest and greatest telescopes, which reflects the continuously improving technology and techniques employed in the search for extrasolar planets. As improved telescopes are orbited, and improved techniques are formulated, we come continuously closer to finding planets like our own out in the universe. When we look up into the starry sky at night, we do so with more knowledge all the time, and at some point in the not too distant future we will know that if we look in a particular direction we will be looking toward a world much like our own. They are out there. For my part, it is nice to know that other worlds like our own are out there. Someday we will be there too. That, also, is nice to know.

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One Response to “Other Worlds”

  1. southwerk said

    An insightful combination of art and science. jp

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