Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Exotopia

There's been a lot of buzz lately about the startling discovery by NASA's Kepler orbital observatory of six new extrasolar planets (or exoplanets) orbiting a single star. Further tentative results suggests evidence for over a thousand more exoplanets. Although this type of discovery inevitably spurs talk of aliens and the search for extraterrestrial life, exoplanets are most valuable for what they can tell us about Earth and our own biological origins. Up until now, all of our science (perhaps excluding physics and chemistry) has been based in observational evidence from the only location we've ever had access to: the Earth. The emerging field of comparative planetology unleashes the power of comparative analysis on our most vexing scientific questions: where did we come from? How common is life? How unique is our own geologic and chemical situation? Access to many diverse exoplanets allows us to control for variables in a way that was previously impossible, opening up new avenues for scientific inquiry.

The future of exoplanet science will be a long, gradual process, but investments in deep-space science should be a global priority for several reasons. The long-term survival of the human race crucially depends on migrating into space in order to establish resilience against catastrophic risk; inhabiting only one spaceship (the Earth) puts all our eggs in one basket, so to speak. Secondly, comparative planetology and deep-space inquiry will have spill-over effects in other areas of science (such as geology and biology) that will generate concrete benefits here on Earth. Thirdly, the sci-fi nature of exo-science will surely awe a new generation of youngsters, creating interest in science and re-establishing NASA's unique position as a government entity with vast cultural influence. Inspiration matters. Finally, scientifically demonstrating the insignificance of Earth and human existence will aid in a re-alignment of policy priorities on a global level: establishing a species-wide identity will assist in better risk-management and decisionmaking in issues varying from global climate change and ecological destruction to catastrophic risk mitigation.

Carl Sagan once said, "the universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent." Perhaps so, but the knowledge and promise contained within the vastness of space is undoubtably a positive resource. The fact is this: if the human race has a future, it lies in space. Let's get started.

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