Looking for New Earth

New extrasolar planets no longer make the news. The number of known exoplanets currently stands at 218 and climbing, and the International Astronomical Union has deemed it utterly impractical to give them names. However, most of the known exoplanets are inhospitably large and gaseous – like Jupiter, but bigger. This is simply because bigger planets are easier to find. Although we have actual pictures of some planets (where “pictures” means the entire planet is shown in about the same number of pixels as Mario’s head on the original NES, but you take what you can get) the smaller ones have all been detected indirectly, by examining the minute wobbles a planet produces in its star’s position or gravitational field.

In today’s issue of Nature, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory report on a lab prototype telescope capable of visually resolving Earth-like planets at a distance of 30 light-years. It’s an immense technical feat, but a number of engineering challenges (and yeah, political challenges too) remain before the device can be put into orbit with the Terrestrial Planet Finder project.

More reading: the Nature article, NASA press release

Comments

  1. C. Birkbeck wrote:

    International Astronomical Union has deemed it utterly impractical to give them names.

    Really? I could see why. Still, that’s too bad.

  2. Andrew Ironwood wrote:

    Dang, hire some sci-fi writers and video gamers to do the naming — I think I named over 200 planets meownself back in the 80’s while playing Starflight (my personal favorite was conquering a planet of robots and rechristening it Heaven 17…)

  3. Rew wrote:

    I want to name planets for a living. Impractical schmimpractical.

  4. Lab Lemming wrote:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t the terrestrial planet finder only be able to identify one of the four terrestrial planets in our solar system?

  5. yami wrote:

    LL, I’d certainly hope TPF could identify all the terrestrial planets in our system, otherwise we’d have wasted a lot of money.

  6. Lab Lemming wrote:

    Oops. I meant from afar…

    Although I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t able to point close enough to the sun to see merc.

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