Quoting the Times, “In a down payment on riches to come, scientists from NASA’s Kepler satellite announced Monday that they had discovered the smallest planet yet found outside our solar system and the first that was unquestionably rocky, like the Earth.”
It’s the “like the earth” part that always annoys me. From the description of this extrasolar planet, it is nothing like the Earth. Kepler 10b, as it is called, is forty percent larger than Earth and almost five times denser, about the same density as iron. It spins around its star in a dizzy orbital “year” that measures just twenty hours in length at a distance of only one-twentieth as that separating Mercury from the Sun. One of the discoverers, Natalie Batalha, calls it a “scorched world.” You think? This suggests to me a planet that is more like a colossal red hot ball bearing going very, very, like really, fast than anything remotely “like the Earth.”
Yet Kepler 10b is called exactly that and hailed by University of California, Berkeley, astronomer Geoffrey Marcy as a discovery that “will be marked as among the most profound in human history.” I actually think the wheel and agriculture rank a little higher, but then I don’t live in Berkeley.
Okay, yes, I admit to being pretty earth-centric (if not earth-chauvinistic) in my thinking about the cosmos and all. I subscribe to the “rare earth” notion. I didn’t always. Once upon a time I could recite the Drake Equation from memory. Much to my family’s regret, I enjoy watching History Channel’s Ancient Aliens. They hate it, but the “Aliens and the Third Reich” episode is way cool, I think. Once, in my present parish which has guys here who’d like to start a MUFON chapter, I pulled together a bible class on UFOs. But, honestly, I am tired of waiting for aliens and Earth-like planets. I will not discount the likelihood of discovering a real Earth-like planet some day, one that is strategically located (one might say miraculously, if you don’t mean anything theological by the word) within a stable solar habitable zone that comes complete with rocks, liquid water, biologic gases, and, oh, one that has a moon to keep it all gravitationally agitated just right. That, I do confess, might just belong up there with agriculture and the wheel.
Meanwhile, though, I think Dr. Marcy would do well to lower his gushy school-girl hyperbole a little bit.