Wednesday, October 06, 2010
NPR just came out with an excellent article here that goes over exactly why I see the discovery of other planets like our own as being so important. It's one of those lines you step over one day without paying much attention (unless you follow developments in space religiously like some of us do) and then a few months or a year later you look back and lo and behold, you realize that now your concept of the universe includes other places like our own, and now that has become perfectly natural. There's Earth, and there's Gliese 581g, and there's (insert next place here), and suddenly even though they're still immeasurably far away it feels almost like these planets are in our own backyard, because they're well within our line of sight and just a few years away at the speed of radio, and simply by building bigger and better telescopes we can explore them right now, even while the range we can actually travel remains ridiculously small.
So after Gliese 581g and all the rest are discovered and we end up with a few dozen planets like our own, all we need to do to know more about them is invest a few billion dollars in constructing telescopes that blow our current ones away. Luckily we have four major great telescopes on the way:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Webb_Space_Telescope -- 2014
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_Magellan_Telescope -- 2018
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Meter_Telescope -- 2018
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Extremely_Large_Telescope -- 2018
and my hope is that excitement over these planets will end up giving the impetus to such projects as the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope, which is just mindblowingly large.
The project was cancelled for the time being due to lack of funding, but with just $2 billion it could be constructed.
Edit: by the way, the article mistakenly calls Gliese 581 a brown dwarf when in fact it's a red dwarf, which is completely different. I've noticed a lot of dwarf mixups lately. Considering that the author of the article is a professor of astrophysics I assume it's just a lazy typo, perhaps due to too much thinking about the WISE telescope and its upcoming discoveries.