Welcome, New Cosmic Neighbors!
To adapt the Bard: "O, wonder! ... O brave new world."
Or seven of them, as it happens. Researchers revealed Wednesday that they've uncovered these intriguing planets swirling outside the solar system, all of them rocky and Earth-sized. Three seem temperate enough to support life. And all are orbiting a small, dim star just 40 light-years away.
The planets' orientation should allow detailed study of their atmospheres -- meaning that, if they do support life, it should soon be evident. All told, it's a discovery with profound implications.
Over the past 25 years, researchers have located roughly 3,500 such exoplanets, of which 40 or so are thought to be in the "habitable zone" where life could thrive. Extrapolate a bit, and that suggests there are at least 11 billion such planets in the Milky Way alone -- and that the possibility of finding life on one of them is worth taking seriously.
In fact, government space agencies around the world are now joining in that search. Two new telescopes -- the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the James Webb Space Telescope -- are coming online soon, lending major firepower to the hunt. Billionaires are funding private efforts to scan for alien intelligence, investigate stellar anomalies, and blast miniature robots across the cosmos in pursuit of E.T.
Not long ago, such projects would've seemed eccentric. But their scientific basis looks increasingly sound. The rudiments of organic life have turned up in surprising abundance in space. Academic research suggests that the possibility of alien civilizations isn't all that crazy. With each discovery of a promising exoplanet, researchers have a new target on which to train their sights and focus their study.
In short, technology, money and ambition have never aligned quite so well in the search for alien life. This latest discovery is a reminder of the tantalizing possibilities of that quest, and an inducement to keep exploring. Perhaps more important, in these harried times, it's also an invitation -- to put down the phone, look up at the stars, and just imagine for a bit.
--Editors: Timothy Lavin, Michael Newman.
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