Although NASA’s planet hunting mission Kepler seems unlikely to return to a fully functioning state, after another reaction wheel failure, it has already yielded an extraordinary crop of new worlds.
In fact, as well as finding many remarkable individual systems (from those orbiting binary stars to those laden down with planets), Kepler has provided a cornerstone for understanding planetary populations. In recent weeks I’ve been writing in a number of places about some of the broader implications of these and other exoplanetary discoveries. The particular thesis that I’ve been peddling…err, putting out for air, is that the sheer abundance of planets is in itself incredibly important.
It’s not – as I discuss in some detail in ‘Are we alone’ at Aeon magazine – because this wealth of planets is actually telling us that life is likely elsewhere. It doesn’t tell us that, but it does tell us something very, very intriguing (you’ll have to read the article).
However, it naturally raises one’s hopes about there being other life in the universe, something I emphasize in an Op-Ed ‘A Universe Full of Planets’ over at the International Herald Tribune & New York Times, and that is a good thing for all manner of reasons – Copernican and otherwise.
Personally I think that these ideas are tremendously important to bear in mind, because astronomers and astrobiologists are reaching a point where we have to do a little better than just expressing our excitement over the detection of yet another possibly ‘habitable’ world. We need to be ready to articulate a deeper message, to explain why we should all be paying attention to this science, and why it belongs on the same stage as something like the Large Hadron Collider, or a mission to Mars.
The field is ripening, and so our scientific reasoning should as well.