Kepler scientific data on 400+ exoplanet candidates may be withheld until February 2011

Friday, April 23, 2010

Well, if there's anything that could put a crimp on my prediction for the discovery of an Earth-like planet this year (around a red dwarf star, that is) it's this. Kepler's data was originally scheduled to go public in June this year, but a request has been made to censor data on 400+ exoplanet candidates until February 2011. The reasons behind this are:

1) credit for discoveries (releasing the data ahead of time would mean someone else could jump in and get the credit for a discovery), and
2) avoiding false positives - telling the media about extrasolar planet discoveries that turn out to be statistical noise or something else.

There is another kind of false positive here though, seen with the announcement of the discovery of Gliese 581c, a planet that was originally billed as being extremely Earth-like. About a day after the announcement though questions started to emerge about whether the planet's location and potential thick atmosphere wouldn't make it more along the lines of a super-Venus than Earth, and it turned out that Gliese 581d, farther out, is more likely to have an Earth-like temperature. So the presence of a large number of eyes can also be beneficial...and probably outweighs any potential disadvantages. After all, no harm was done in the end from Gliese 581c being billed as an Earth-like planet in the beginning.

And besides, it's a bit of a tease to quickly announce the discovery of five exoplanets right off the bat, tout the capabilities of the new telescope and then decide to wait a full year before making the data public.

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