New Castle News

January 2, 2013

Our Opinion: Planetary prediction Astronomers expect to find places similar to Earth

By Staff
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — The end of one year and the start of another creates an opportunity for reflection and prediction.

Reflecting on the past year may help in formulating goals for the future. There’s definite value in that.

Making predictions about what’s to come is a somewhat risky business. Make the right call and you look like a genius. Get it wrong and you can make yourself seem silly.

Yet there are no shortages of predictions being offered for 2013. We take many of these with a grain of salt. But one in particular caught our attention, because it was — in a way — quite startling.

Many astronomers expect the first Earth-like planet outside the solar system will be discovered this year.

This isn’t merely wishful thinking. Advancing technology and improved analysis have allowed astronomers to confirm an increasing number of planets circling stars in the galaxy.

At first, only large, gaseous planets — akin to Jupiter — were found. But improved techniques have started to locate smaller planets.

What’s more, researchers are getting better at assessing how far from their stars these planets orbit. That’s a key factor in determining if a planet could be similar to Earth.

Of course, no one is predicting any confirmation that such a planet will support life. It may be roughly the same size as Earth and orbiting its sun at a distance that makes it neither too hot nor too cold. But that’s not enough to ascertain whether it actually supports life.

So far, it remains mere speculation that life exists on other planets in the galaxy. But with billions of stars in the Milky Way, most astronomers find it unlikely that Earth is alone as a planet supporting life.

But that’s just speculation, not fact. We know that water and various chemicals are necessary for supporting life on Earth, and it’s presumed these would be needed for life on other worlds. However, even the presence of these building blocks may not be enough to ensure life.

Scientists are at a disadvantage in assessing not only the chances for life elsewhere, but what it would look like. With Earth as our only real frame of reference, much of this is a guessing game.

And then there’s the matter of the potential for intelligent life on other planets. That’s a whole new can of worms.

For years now, efforts have been under way to scan the stars for radio signals that would confirm the presence of advanced life on other worlds. So far, there has been nothing.

But the effort has been hampered by the fact no one knew where to look. If technology is nearing the ability to identify earthlike planets, it will lead to refinement in the search for intelligence.