Friday, July 31, 2015

We're not moving to Earth 2.0 any time soon

There has been a great furore about a new Earth (dubbed Earth 2.0) deep in outer space. People are excited about this scientific discovery but for all the wrong reasons.

Are we moving there soon?

Since the discovery, I have witnessed many an internet meme discussing the possibility of moving the human population to this new planet. Some even entertain the idea of it being a safe haven for when this planet goes to the dumps.

Our precious planet, this pale blue dot in the great vastness of the universe is precious to us. It is the only planet we currently live on, and more importantly, earth is where I keep all my stuff.

To our best scientific knowledge, planet earth is the only planet that can sustain life. For a planet to sustain life as we know it, it needs to pass some important criteria.

The planet needs to have liquid water which exists inside a very narrow range of temperature from 0°C to 100°C. A planet too close to its star will be too hot, a planet to far away from its parent star will be far too cold.

So a planet at just the right distance from its star is just right to host life as we know it. No wonder the zone where such a planet needs to exist is called the Goldilocks Zone for conditions for life that are "just right".

Like our home planet, Earth 2.0 is found to be in such a region and other analyses have found other similarities to our home planet using nothing else but thousand-four-hundred-year-old light.

Being so far away, going to the planet is out of the question. So, what is so great about an earth-like planet that is hopelessly out of our reach?

Well, it helps us edge closer to answering the question of whether we are indeed alone in the universe and to understand how this, we need to understand the process of looking for these planets in our galaxy.

Basics of planet hunting

Looking for planets in other solar systems isn't easy. No planet outside our solar system has ever been directly photographed so other means have to be used to find it.

A small telescope orbiting earth called the Kepler Space Telescope, looks toward the stars to spot the shadows of planets orbiting those stars. The task is equivalent to spotting a fly passing in front of a flood light from a few kilometres away.

In order to detect the fly, it needs to pass directly in front of the flood-light so that it is between the lamp and your line of sight and you need to be somewhat lucky to see it.

We were lucky enough to find this planet using this method and in order to understand the significance of this discovery, we need to consider another analogy.

Imagine you had to find a mango tree in a forest as the one (earth) you are currently at has been depleted of its fruit. Say, you take a few minutes look for another in the dense forest and find and another.

You would assume one of two things. Either you were very lucky to discover the only other mango tree in the dense forest or you are not so lucky and mango trees are abundant throughout the forest.

The latter would make better sense and give you hope in the abundance of more mango trees and therefore more mangos ripe for the picking.

That is the same idea we can apply in the search for another earth-like planet. The existence of this earth cousin increases the likelihood of other planets in the Goldilocks Zone which also increases the chances of the existence of life as we know it all over the galaxy.

Moral of this story

It is a good thing that people can get excited about science stories but what people discuss needs to be accurate.

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