• Champagne Bottles on Ice for “Potential Habitable Planets”

    Ever since my run-in with climate change deniers, I’ve had a “google alert” set up for myself so I know when something I say is getting spun and I have a chance to set the record straight. And for the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed the following prediction has been taken a little bit too… certainly:

    “I believe Kepler will find a ‘Goldilocks planet’ within the next two years”

    I DO believe the Kepler team will do this. However, this is just a prediction. I’m not on the Kepler team, nor do I have any particular insights into what they’ve been up to. I’m just aware of the following:

    1. None of the confirmed Kepler planets are really in that “sweet spot.” Kepler 22b is probably the closest to this, but in my opinion this planet is probably too large to harbor liquid oceans at its surface.
    2. The list of Kepler planet candidates includes those that are not too hot, not too cold, not too big, and not too small for oceans and life to exist on the surface. More simply, there are unconfirmed planets that do not have any properties that would make life impossible.
    3. The Kepler team believes that the vast majority of the planet candidates they have observed are indeed planets.
    4. The ability of Kepler scientists to confirm planets has slowly moved towards smaller planets further from their parent stars.

    If you put this all together, you’d have the expectation that the Kepler team will achieve one of its major goals: to find an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of its parent star… and that it would happen relatively soon. But there are two major misconceptions about this “prediction” that I’ve made.

    The first is that people are interpreting my words incorrectly, and some outlets are putting out titles that suggest we’ll know that the planet IS habitable… or more inaccurately, suggest we’ll know the planet is inhabited. Instead, what Kepler will tell us is where the “first potentially habitable planet” is. This may seem like a minor distinction, but it’s an important one. We will need to fly entirely separate missions to confirm habitability or search for alien biospheres. This is a point the original video/article made, but many of the secondary pieces did not make this crucial distinction.

    The second misconception I’ve seen out there is that my prediction means this will certainly happen. But I don’t have any special insights; it’s just a prediction. I also think the Cubs will probably lose tomorrow… but they do win from time to time.

    I’m also going to use a baseball analogy to describe the overall situation. Imagine your favorite team closing in on the division title (finding a potentially habitable planet). Let’s say they are 3 games ahead of all their rivals with only 5 games left to play. That would be a situation in which I would predict they would make the playoffs…. but a prediction is not a guarantee. As a Cubs fan, I know this all too well. What’s more, a division title and playoff appearance (finding a potentially habitable planet) is not the same thing as reaching the World Series (confirming the habitability of that planet)… much less the same thing as winning the World Series (finding another biosphere).

    So I’ve got my “potentially habitable planet” champagne bottle on ice. (So should you!) But I haven’t uncorked that bottle yet. (Neither should you!)

    • Al

      Hi Shawn:

      Enjoyed your talk in Annapolis tonight. Your excitement and enthusiasm for your work was refreshing. I only wish there were younger people in the audience who would use you as a role model. Keep on having fun!!

      Al