What a Water-Full World

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

The discovery of an ocean-covered planet prompts reflections on the purpose, cost, and value of our forays into the great unknown of outer space.

Illustration: Shipra Gupta

It was hard to tell which was more depressing this week: stories detailing the seemingly inevitable collapse of our planet’s ecosystem, or stories detailing the seemingly inevitable collapse of our political efforts to save it. With the woefully underwhelming Copenhagen summit wrapping up today, there’s not much positive to say about the prospects for the Earth. So let’s turn our attention to another planet.

The discovery of a new planet has always been exciting, but the bloom is starting to come off the rose now that we’ve done it more than 400 times. A University of California–Santa Cruz team announced the discovery of six new planets orbiting two stars earlier this week, but they weren’t even the toast of the exoplanetology world, much less international newsmakers. Those honors went to a team led by Harvard’s David Charbonneau.

Quality trumps quantity when it comes to such discoveries, and Charbonneau’s planet has a number of newsworthy traits. At more than six times our own planet’s mass, it’s a “super-Earth,” but this new world’s relatively low density means it’s likely made mostly of water. Though it orbits uncomfortably close to its star, the planet’s water may be kept liquid at 200° C by a dense, highly pressurized atmosphere. Not exactly a tropical paradise (though Dennis Overbye’s New York Times headline describes it as “sultry”), but easily the most Earthlike planet we’ve been able to characterize thus far. 

Orbiting the red dwarf star GJ 1214 in the Ophiuchus constellation, the planet is also quite nearby by astronomical standards. At a distance of 42 light-years, it would still take several thousand lifetimes for us to get anything there, but its close proximity makes it an excellent target for ranged study by the James Webb Space Telescope scheduled to launch in 2014. In the meantime, the aging Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes may be used to study this bizarre waterworld.

All those factors combined make this the rare basic science story that the scientifically non-inclined actually find interesting. Charbonneau’s discovery even graced the front page of CNN.com, though the story was actually written for Time by the veteran science journalist Michael Lemonick, as the cable news company axed its entire science, technology, and environment staff last year.

The one thing hampering the planet’s capacity to inspire is its clunky name: GJ 1214b. So Wired ran a poll seeking name suggestions. The poll has since been hacked into uselessness, but an early front-runner was, of course, Stephen Colbert.

While space has few rivals in terms of the knowledge-for-its-own-sake inspiration that draws proud geeks like me (and probably you) to science, it is also the subject of more ire than almost any other discipline. And it’s mostly for the same reason: knowledge-for-its-own-sake doesn’t pay the bills; it makes them. 

Emily Bazelon, one of Slate’s senior editors, epitomizes that tension in a recent column about her inability to mirror her young sons’ enthusiasm for all things astronomical.

Bazelon gives the well-worn counterargument to space research: “Just think what we could do on this planet with all the time and energy we spend trying to reach other ones.” But she goes farther, saying, “I relish stories about NASA boondoggles for confirming my suspicion that the agency is a budget sinkhole.”

But the fact is, NASA’s funding just doesn’t represent a lot of money when it comes to government spending. For example, Congress put a $18.7 billion budget request on President Obama’s desk earlier this week. In comparison, this year’s US defense budget is around $660 billion. An admittedly simplistic reckoning thus suggests the entirety of NASA’s funding could run the US military for about 10 days.

The irony is that the budgetary boondoggles Bazelon is specifically referring to largely consist of NASA’s chronically underfunded Earth science missions. Hell, a movie about exploring an extrasolar moon might have a bigger budget than what NASA is allotting in 2010 for Earth science research.

An astute commenter points out the impact Earthrise had on the nascent environmental movement of the 1970s, but space exploration’s value is about a lot more than inspiration and symbolism. It’s hard to say that NASA (or astronomy as a whole) is useless when its products are so potentially useful for dealing with climate change—arguably the most insidious threat to human life we’ve ever faced. Understanding our global climate system would simply not be possible without a vantage point somewhere off that globe.

Indeed, one of the more positive stories to come out of Copenhagen last week was Google’s pledge to use satellite data to monitor deforestation. But with leaders basically conceding that carbon-capping agreements will not even come close to keeping temperature increases in acceptable levels over the next few decades, the money that goes into figuring out how to live in space or travel to new worlds might be more relevant than we would prefer.

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published December 18, 2009

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