Yesterday I got bought lunch by some people who wanted me to do some web work for them. As any independent contractor knows that is never a good sign. Usually they only buy you lunch to get out of paying you. And that was exactly the case yesterday. Still, I got a free lunch and that is the important part here today. As you may remember I recently almost killed my boss. He had been watching me use hot sauce after hot sauce on my food and decided he would give it the old school try. It was the same as if he had mastered a tricycle and then decided to street race a Ferrari. There were steps in between he was missing. Still, he survived. Yesterday’s lunch took place in a Chinese restaurant. I ordered the spicy squid with Szechuan pepper sauce on the side. The waitress asked me three times if I was sure. Three times I said yes. About a minute later a young man walked out and asked me the same question. He could have been the waitress’ grandson, a nephew or some random Occidental who happened to be near by. I had no way of knowing but assured him I had ordered correctly. Then, just before our meal was delivered the chef came out to ask me as well. I was beginning to worry. Was their Szechuan sauce somehow different? Toxic? But it wasn’t. It was spicy, which is what I wanted, but not dangerously so. Anyway, after the meal the waitress came up to me and asked the oddest question I have ever heard. “You sure you American?” I assured I was an American of Irish descent. She looked at me and laughed. “Oh, Irish,” she exclaimed, “that okay then, Irish crazy!”
So there you have it. I am genetically predisposed to insanity. But I still wasn’t crazy enough to take that job.
As it turns out, the evolutionary path that led to me may not be unique. The Keplar telescope is finding more and more, supposedly, habitable planets every day. Which means that molecules there might be doing what molecules here do and grouping up to form beings like you and me. Seth Shostack is so stoked about the latest discoveries he’s trying to figure out what to get a a Klingon for a first date.
The latest planets turned up by NASA’s Kepler telescope are — like the kids in Lake Wobegone — gratifyingly above average.
These new worlds offer both promise and insights, because they’ve got traits that are both appealing and mildly disconcerting.
In the four years since its launch, Kepler has chalked up 122 new and confirmed planets. It’s also caught the scent of nearly three thousand additional objects, of which probably 80 percent or more will turn out to be other-worldly orbs. Compare this track record to the approximately 700 planets painstakingly rooted out by ground-based telescopes in the last 18 years, and you can appreciate why some astronomers refer to the space-based instrument as a planet factory — churning out new worlds faster than a Hong Kong tailor turns out suits.
But here’s the thing: Kepler can find small planets (even smaller than Mercury). And diminutive worlds are more likely to be rocky, and lapped by oceans and atmospheres. In the vernacular of “Star Trek,” these would be M-class planets: life-friendly oases where biology could begin and bumpy-faced Klingons might exist.
Three of the new Kepler worlds have both the right size and the right orbital distances to boast temperatures at which water would remain liquid, a circumstance often assumed to be life’s sine qua non. One of these planets orbits the star Kepler 69 — which is comparable in brightness and size to our Sun. This possibly habitable planet is ingeniously named Kepler 69c.
The other two worlds are the spawn of a dimmer star called Kepler 62. Its brood includes at least five planets, but the habitable ones are labeled Kepler 62e and Kepler 62f.
All three of these potentially habitable worlds are “Super Earths.” The term isn’t intended to suggest planets with azure skies, unpolluted oceans, and sympathetic inhabitants. Rather, it’s a reference to size. Super Earths have super girths, between 1 and roughly 2-1/2 times that of our own planet. Habitable, in principle — just a bit bulked up.
According to SETI Institute scientist Jon Jenkins, Super Earths are turning up more and more often. They dominate the new worlds now being found by Kepler. Now that’s a bit of a head scratcher, because in our own solar system the number of Super Earths is zero. There’s nothing between the size of Terra Firma and Neptune, which is 4 times larger than Earth.
So is our solar system just unlucky, like a family with eight kids but no girls? Or is there some deeper explanation for the absence of a Super Earth nearby? We don’t know. And this is an unexpected puzzle for those who wish to know what constitutes an “average” solar system.
The discovery of these three planets has also encouraged scientists who look for life in deep space. The number of potentially habitable worlds discovered beyond our solar system is currently 9, out of a total of 872 confirmed exoplanets. The math is dead simple: it seems that the frequency of planets able to support life is roughly one percent. In other words, a billion or more such worlds exist in our galaxy alone. That’s a lot of acreage, and it takes industrial-strength credulity to believe it’s all bleakly barren.
So will SETI experimenters fix their antennas on these new planets? Well, the answer’s as obvious as a lounge lizard: of course they will. But give consideration to the fact that alien astronomers could have scrutinized Earth for more than 4 billion years without detecting any radio signals, despite the fact that our world is the poster child for habitability. Lots of planetary systems will require examination before we can reasonably hope to find an alien transmission. Still, at least we know that suitable planets are not dauntingly rare.
And there’s something else that encourages me in the search for signals from these newly found members of the planetary bestiary. Kepler 62e has an orbital period of 122 days; Kepler 62f’s period is 267 days. Consequently, every 89 years these two seductive orbs line up with Earth. They’re connected to us in a straight line. If some sophisticated society has colonized both planets, then their back-and-forth communication signals — if any — will be aimed our way during this special moment.
So in this case, the new discoveries clue us not only where we should hunt for signals, but when. And that might nicely improve the odds of finding Klingons.
vam ‘oH Dun!!!
Look it up.
While Seth is curious about Klingon poon, and aren’t we all down inside, I am more interested in knowing if a Super Earth will produce a Super Hot sauce.
Also, speaking of super, it was barely 6 months ago that Neil deGrasse Tyson actually discovered Krypton. So if a fictional world can be made flesh, as it were, imagine the amazing discoveries the real ones hold.