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The NASA hack job on the extrasolar planet search April 4, 2006

Posted by dr. gonzo in Politics, Space.

Are we alone? One of the grandest and most impactful questions humankind can pose. The answer, whether positive or negative, will have profound implications for humanity.

Before the early 1990s the only known planetary system in the entire universe was that of Sol, our Sun, Earth’s system.

On October 6, 1995 all that changed. The discovery of a Jupiter-mass planet orbiting the star 51 Peg ushered in a new era of astronomy. Since that day 162 other planets have been confirmed orbiting 138 different stars.

Some of the discoveries have turned planet-formation theorizing upside down. So far, we have only been able to detect mostly large gas giants, some larger than Jupiter, some so close to their star that they orbit 8 times closer than Mercury does to our own Sun.

Recently, a new class of extrasolar planets was discovered. The Super Earth. These planets are thought to exist at the upper limit of mass and size for terrestrial planets.

What’s next? The search for Earth-like planets. The discovery of Earth-like planets will greatly enhance our ability to search for extraterrestrial intelligent life. Our galaxy is a vast place, some 100,000 light years across and containing somewhere between two and four hundred billion stars. The odds are startlingly in favor of some form of intelligent life existing beyond Earth, within our own galaxy.

NASA Extrasolar Planet Finding Missions (Space-based)

SIM PlanetQuest
Terrestrial Planet Finder
Spitzer Space Telescope

These are the missions that excite me like no others. Sadly, what NASA won’t say publicly is that these missions are in the gravest of danger.

According to the 2007 NASA budget request:

“The Terrestrial Planet Finding project (TPF) has been deferred indefinitely.”

Yeah, yeah, read cancelled. What this means is that the ESA-French National Space Agency joint COROT project will represent the cutting edge in the space-based search for Earth-like planets.

The NASA budget has been a source of serious criticism from scientists everywhere. To implement President Bush’s “Vision” we are seeing funds diverted from astrobiology, space science (including searches for other Earths) and other important science missions in the name of extending the flailing shuttle program through 2010. All this for a return to the Moon and then on to Mars. No sense of timing here whatsoever. What’s the point of returning to the moon at this point? We are on the cusp of some of the greatest discoveries humankind has ever made, the discovery of another Earth and possibly extraterrestrial life.

Links-NASA FY ’07 Budget Stuff:

The Budget Request
Planetary Society Statement on budget
News story (space.com) about scientists reactions

At least, thus far, the Kepler mission is on schedule, according to the 2007 budget, “Kepler entered the implementation phase with a scheduled launch in June 2008.” Kepler will search for Earth-like planets within the “habitable zone” of other stars. Truly exciting.

As for the SIM PlanetQuest mission, the budget request had this to say: “As reported in the May 2005 operating plan, SIM is being replanned, to be completed in spring 2006. A launch of no earlier than 2015-16, a change of approximately 3 years, is assumed in this budget.”

So, that one is a ways off, and already delayed but it too could face the ax in the near future in order to continue the shuttle-program-to moon-base-crap.

This, despite extrasolar planets getting a specific mention in Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration.” I think I will laugh hilariously when the Chinese beat us to the Moon.

Here’s what W said was one of the goals for space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit:

“Conduct advanced telescope searches for Earth-like planets and habitable environments around other stars.”

Link to the whole she-bang, “A Renewed Spirit of Discovery

The previously cut DAWN mission to the asteroids Ceres and Vesta (essentially protoplanets) was thankfully given a repreive.

NASA and the Bush administration need to wake up to the reality of what the vision should really mean. Answering fundamental questions about the nature of life, the universe, and our existence. Questions that human beings have looked to the heavens and asked themselves for thousands of years. We are on the edge of answering these questions, we must not sacrifice these opportunities in the name of national pride and badly timed missions to places more easily explored with current techniques. The Moon and Mars are reasonable goals as well, but not at the expense of other more important discoveries.


1. overland - June 23, 2006

this is mind-blowing. http://www.dvirginia.com

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