Thursday, April 2, 2009

Class "M" Planets!

To my mind, space travel and other worlds have always been the heart of good science fiction. I’ll enjoy a non-space-technology story every once in a while, but if it doesn’t have spaceships or aliens, I usually get bored fairly quickly.

Asimov’s Foundation trilogy is among the best science fiction ever written. The books were published in the early 1950s, and they assumed the presence of millions of habitable planets in the galaxy, many of which had people on them. I grew up with science fiction so early in life, that it never seriously occurred to me that there might not be other planets with life on them. But, outside of the science fiction world, that view was far from universal. When I wrote a paper on life beyond Earth for my freshman astronomy class at CalTech, it was greeted with tolerant amusement. Both generally and in the scientific world, the notion that there were other habitable worlds out there…worlds we might go to…was viewed with great skepticism.

Now, we are finding them!

Weird worlds so far, to be sure. None of the “Class M” planets that were so prevalent on Star Trek yet. Most of the planets we’ve found are large, several times the size of Jupiter. Some are so large that there is debate about whether they are really planets, or failed stars. Some orbit far from their suns, and some orbit so close that they scream around their parent stars. So far, there have been no “mirror Earths”, just waiting to be colonized.

However, this doesn’t indicate in the slightest that those habitable planets don’t exist! The fact that we haven’t seen them is due to the limitations of our current search techniques. We are still in the very early stages of learning to find planets around other stars and, not surprisingly, it’s easier to find big ones, than it is to find small ones like Earth.

But, we are trying:

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has always been the most reliably awesome part of NASA, and this is no exception! Scheduled for launch within the next decade, the SIM PlanetQuest mission will search 250 neighboring stars for Earth-like planets.

I’ve said for a long time that if you give Hollywood 16 pixels of an Earth-like planet, they’ll build an entire civilization around it! Perhaps Captain Kirk’s great, great grandfather will be born this year. On the other hand, with the depressed level of public interest in space currently, maybe it will take 64 pixels.

In this “Other Worlds” section of my blog, I’ll be reporting on updates in the search for, and exploration of, new worlds!

I’m seriously considering working with the National Space Society (NSS) to reactivate their speakers program, which has apparently gone dormant. The first part of that effort would be to develop a series of slick visual presentations for the speakers to give. There’s an enormous amount of artwork available free from NASA, and when we’re reporting on a private company, I’d be surprised if that company wouldn’t be happy to provide us with zingy promotional images and footage.

The danger, of course, is if we try to make it “educational”, or “informative”. That will turn the whole thing into a real snoozer. It has to be entertaining, above all else. That means a lot more visuals, and a lot fewer words. Curiously, that’s exactly what worked for me whenever I was making a pitch for a project to the Governor here in Nevada. He was a very intelligent man, but he just didn’t have the time to listen to a lot of long-winded, droning information, no matter how “vital” I thought the information was. I had to condense complicated technical and economic issues so that they were interesting, persuasive, and deliverable in a very short time.

This should be an interesting project!