Planets Aligning For Humankind’s Next Great Exploration

Last Tuesday, three teams of astronomers from around the globe furthered humankind’s quest to embrace all reaches of our universe. Using resources across Earth – from California to Switzerland, Chile to Texas, Hawaii to Washington – three new planets orbiting far-distant stars were discovered. This kind of breakthrough has become almost commonplace over the past decade; more than 100 planets have been sighted throughout the never-ending reaches of outer space. These diligent scientists and their remarkable findings don’t receive much press and they hear little public praise, but their work continues to expand the scope of human knowledge and bring awe and wonder into a world desperate for some. Orbiting the stars 55 Cancri, Gliese 436 and mu Arae, these planets are especially significant for being more similar to Earth than any planets previously known. Their masses are only about 14 to 20 times larger, and they are composed of either ice, like Uranus and Neptune, or possibly iron and rock, like Earth itself. Until now, each new planet was at least 50 times the mass of Earth, made of blazing gas, much like Jupiter and Saturn. What excites these scientists, led by Dr. Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institute in Washington, Dr. Barbara McArthur of the University of Texas and Dr. Michel Mayor of the Geneva Observatory, is that we are getting ever-closer to finding planets conducive to sustaining earthen life. What excites me is that we have detected these massive bodies at all, dozens of light years away, floating throughout the realms of the greatest unknowns we can fathom. I do not in any way consider myself a man of science, but outer space fascinates me. Everything on our planet we can study, we can observe, we can rest assured it abides by the physical laws established by Newton and Galileo. Out there, however, we don’t know what to expect, we don’t know what to look for. We cannot comprehend the wonders of the vast universe, but they are out there, stretching beyond the reaches of our sighs, or even our imaginations. It is easy to condemn NASA and the rest of the space program. After the disasters of the Challenger and Columbia and the lost satellites and rovers, it can be seen as wasteful expenses, a burden on a society struggling to fund education, housing and healthcare. There is no immediate practical purpose and no satisfactory ultimate goal. Even the successes, like these planetary findings, are buried somewhere far beyond the front page, far beyond the tales of John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. But I see something else in the space program. I see it as a pillar of what government can be and what humankind can aspire too. There is something to be said for fostering spirit and hope and awe. There is something to be said for proving government can be and should be more than tax plans and appropriations bills. And there is something to be said pushing the limits of we know and understand.The only time I have stood up and applauded President Bush is when he announced plans to support the efforts to someday soon land a manned craft on Mars. In this respect, the president saw the whole picture. He saw the vision and promise of human beings as naturally inquisitive creatures, constantly seeking to know more so that we understand more about ourselves. Exploring space is more expensive, but no less reasonable than studying wildlife or halogen gasses. Somewhere out there might be a key to dimensions we can’t imagine that could change how we view our own planet. And even if not, there is an endless series of new phenomena to observe.One day, our ancestors emerged from caves to create fire and language. Magellan sailed the globe, Lewis and Clark mapped the West, Jacques Cousteau demystified the seas and Robert Peary reached the North Pole. Space, in all its enormity, mystery and glamour is next. So we should all take notice of three extraordinary teams of scientists, their accomplishments, and all that they stand for. To not do so would be a disservice to the potential of humankind.