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Saturday, November 28, 2015


Nearly forty years ago, I spent some time at the NASA Ames Research Center to work on the search for exoplanets (planets outside our solar system).  To quote from one of my Huffington Post articles more than six years ago:

In Chapter 4 of Simple Solutions for Humanity, I relate my experiences in this field, starting with Project Cyclops, and also Orion, a short stint I had at NASA's Ames Research Center. The question then was, are the planets in our solar system the only ones in the universe? I interacted then with Barney Oliver, Jack Billingham and Carl Sagan, and actually proposed a project to detect earth-sized planets. The concept rested on the principle that for life to occur, there needs to be an atmosphere, and starlight (sunlight) causes population inversion (a condition which induces lasing), meaning that spikes of monochromatic light can be detected, both proving that a planet exists and providing the gas composition. I took cues from Charles Townes, who had just moved from MIT to Cal-Berkeley and wrote on this subject in Science. NASA tossed my proposal aside and remarked that the Hubble Telescope would soon fly and will then accomplish this task. Well, earth-sized extrasolar planets are beyond the capability of Hubble.

So four decades later, where are we with respect to extrasolar planets (same as exoplanets)?  
  • Scientists have now found 2001 planets in 1267 star systems.
  • However, the Hubble (that's astronomer Edwin Hubble) Telescope finally was able to detect one almost a quarter century after I left NASA.  The first truly reliable observation came two decades after my proposal, although there is some growing support for the very first coming in 1988, an effort that did not use any Hubble data.
  • The Kepler (Johannes Kepler to the right) Space Observatory, launched around the time I published that HuffPo mentioned above, has found more than half of these planets.  However, the method used depends on planets diminishing the brilliance of the star during transit, so the concept is incredibly crude and works only because there are so many stars out there.
  • As starlight can be billions of times more brilliant than planetlight, only supermassive planets (larger than Jupiter) can be detected with current direct measurement techniques.
  • There is an assortment of techniques, but the transiting method of Kepler and the indirect analysis coming from star wobbles (that is, if a planet is revolving around a star, the shift in position of the star is mathematically modeled to predict that there must be a planet or two or more involved) are most favored.
Is space exploration a waste of money compared to our need for global climate change remediation, migrant support, war, education and so on?  Well, here are two analyses:

GDP in 2004Percent spent on space
USA11.8 trillion0.14%
Europe11.7 trillion0.03% (not inc. individual agencies)
Japan3.7 trillion0.05%
China7.3 trillion0.02%
Russia1.4 trillion0.06%
India3.3 trillion0.03%

It's also interesting to work out how much is spent per person:
PopulationSpace spending per person in 2005
USA0.3 billion$54
Europe0.6 billion$5.80 (not inc. indiv agencies)
Japan0.1 billion$18
China1.3 billion92c
Russia0.1 billion$9
India1.1 billion82c

In any progressive society, some small sum should be set aside for activities supporting art, basic science and a range of exploratory endeavors.  Looking at the larger picture, the world spends one-hundredth of 5 percent, or 0.05%, of the global domestic product on space exploration.  However, this includes Mars-related expenditures, which, to me, are grossly unnecessary, for there is no reason at this time to go to the Red Planet.  A millennium from now, or later, maybe, but not now.  Worse, in the USA, Congress about a quarter century ago passed some legislation that PROHIBITS the expenditure of the Federal budget on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which was somewhat relaxed in 2003.  

In any case, while I continue to harbor a sour grapes attitude that NASA ignored my proposal to track extrasolar planet orbits utilizing the simple fact that planetary atmospheres emanate very fine wavelengths (that is, they lase) representing the gaseous composition--which would have accomplished this task sooner and cheaper, plus with the knowledge of the atmospheric composition--times have changed, for now know there are exoplanets, so the focus should shift to actually SEARCHING FOR EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE.  

Until only around two decades ago, we thought there were only nine (and actually 8, for Pluto is now a plotoid) planets.  Now that we know, by extrapolation, there are probably a septillion or quadrillion (they both can be used for 10 to the 24th power) planets in our Universe, let us proceed towards something like what Carl Sagan and Jodie Foster produced in CONTACT:

Are the clues for eternal peace, fusion power and the Encyclopedia Galactica streaming in from civilizations billions of year ahead of us?

As it remains useful to pinpoint planets ideal for potential intelligent life, for "listening" would thus be more efficient, we have an opportunity to learn about the state-of-the-science through a public presentation:

At 7:30PM on Wednesday, 2 December 2015 at the University of Hawaii Manoa Campus Art Auditorium, you can interact with four of the top scholars in exoplanets:
  • Andrew Howard:  Institute for Astonomy, University of Hawaii
  • Nader Haghighipour:  Instute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii
  • Paul Kalas:  Adjunct Professor of Astronomy, University of California at Berkeley
  • Josh Winn:  Associate Professor of Physics, MIT

All the above is free if you come by bus or avoid parking on campus, for you will then be charged $6.


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