Exoplanets and the “Big Picture”

Well hello, fancy people. I am honored and thrilled to be here sharing my love of the universe. My name is Nicole, and some may know me as NoisyAstronomer or just “Noisy.” There are various reasons why that is which I’d be happy to tell you over a bottle of cabernet. Let’s just get started with the science, shall we?

I’m still recovering and catching up on work after a week and a half of conference goodness where I’ve been networking, learning lots of new science, and presenting some of my soon-to-be finished thesis work in astronomy. One of these conferences was the American Astronomical Society Meeting (affectionately called “the double-‘A’-‘S'”) in Austin, Texas. This is, of course, one big nerd-tastic gathering of some 2700 astronomers who gather to participate in workshops, give talks, hangout in pubs, and make fun of the movie “Armageddon.” (No really, we did that.)

If you follow your space news, then you might have noticed a serious bump in the amount of news stories coming from the meeting’s many press conferences. Wednesday was unofficially “exoplanet day” as astronomers working on various projects unleashed a torrent of exoplanet discoveries upon the world.

Exoplanets have been a hot topic for over a decade now, and by now you might be getting a sense of “burnout” from these news stories. When I was a kid, there were 9 planets that we knew of, all orbiting our home star, the Sun. Today, there are several hundred planets known to orbit other stars in our Galaxy, with hundreds more candidates waiting to be confirmed. Just discovering an exoplanet is not newsworthy, so the race is one to find the smallest, weirdest, and other “-est” worlds out there.

So who wins the smallest prize for now? Three new exoplanets discovered by Kepler were found that are smaller than Earth in radius, the smallest being about the size of Mars. Just a decade ago, the only planets that we could detect were massive gas giants as big as or bigger than Jupiter, the king planet of our own Solar System. Improved techniques and better instruments are now letting us see planets that may be more like our own Earth. In fact, that’s what the Kepler Mission was specifically designed for, to find an Earth-sized planet in an Earth-like orbit around a Sun-like star. That may sound a little, well, biased, but we know at least one instance where life exists on a planet like that. The search for exoplanets is at least partly motivated by the search for life elsewhere in the universe.

Itty bitty planets around an itty-bitty star, compared to the Jupiter system. Image credit: Caltech

This brings me to one of the other interesting exoplanet news items from the AAS. A six-year-long project using the Hubble Space Telescope has determined that our Galaxy alone has 100 billion planets in it. Stop. Think about that. Our little corner of the universe has 100,000,000,000 planets. Whaaaa…??!

Artist's conception of a galaxy full of planets. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Kornmesser (ESO)

Okay, I just said that we’ve detected several hundred, maybe a thousand. How does one get to 100 billion planets? The Universe is a BIG place, and astronomers cannot always count every instance of something cool going on. So, we take samples and extrapolate. This particular team studied 40 “micro-lensing” events, or 40 instances where a background star was temporarily brightened by the gravitational lens of a passing star between it and us. Three of those showed a second brightening event which indicated the presence of a planet. Yes, sometimes we have very small samples from which to detect entire worlds. That’s science on the edge, baby.

Since micro-lensing is such a rare event, seeing three planets this way is actually rather significant. Take into account the whole Galaxy, and you get about one planet per star. Of course, some stars have lots of planets, and others have none. (And some stars go “wee wee wee” and we call them pulsars!) We want to get a good handle on the number of planets in the Galaxy since that factors into the famous “Drake Equation” that, given certain assumptions, lets you estimate how many intelligent civilizations we may be able to contact right now in the Milky Way Galaxy.

Commemorative plaque of the Drake Equation in the Green Bank lounge, one of my favorite dorky hangouts.

Written as an equation, this is actually one astronomer’s way of organizing topics for a conference about extraterrestrial life. That’s right, not a precise equation, but a list of discussion topics. In 1961, Frank Drake hosted a conference of about a dozen scientists to discuss the plausibility of finding intelligent life beyond the Earth at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. For the record, it also makes an excellent syllabus outline for a college class on this topic.

Fifty-one years later, we still only know the first variable, the rate of star formation in the Galaxy, with certainty, though with this recent measurement with Hubble, we are closing in on the second factor, the fraction of these stars which have planets. Luckily, for ET hunters, that number seems to be pretty high. Unfortunately, however, other factors are completely unknown to us, such as what fraction of these planets are habitable, what fraction support life, and whether that life will actually become sentient and technologically advanced. In fact, we don’t even know how to begin to ask some of those questions. In science, figuring out the right question to ask is half the battle.

Later in life, Frank Drake has come to the conclusion that the number of communicating civilizations in the galaxy is most heavily dependent on the last, most speculative factor, the lifetime of such a civilization. Humans have only been playing with radio signals for a little over a hundred years in our 200,000 year history as a species during a 4.5 billion year history of life on this planet. What happens if we don’t survive our own technological adolescence? Have other beings made it past this point?

It is so hard to ponder such big questions with a finite human brain in such a short human lifetime. But that doesn’t mean that we are going to stop looking and thinking about these hard questions. Who knows, if humanity one day makes contact with another sentient species, or if we travel to Earth-like planets beyond the Sun to extend our civilization, our descendants will look back at this time in history as the time we started it all, with our little telescopes of glass and metal orbiting a tiny world in the outer edge of a spiral arm of just another galaxy in the Universe.



Nicole is a professor, astronomer, educator, geek, dog mom, occasional fitness nerd, and maker of tiny comets. She is also very loud under the right circumstances. Like what you read? Buy me a coffee:

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    1. Yay :-)

      Drake Eqn Surly sounds awesome. I still want a radio telescope Surly, too! Maybe I should get that one to celebrate my defense…

    1. Absolutely. I was tempted to delve into the Fermi Paradox (“Where the *bleep* are they?!) but realized that might get way too long for one post.

  1. I love the exoplanet search and find it inspirational and exciting but there are two (pointed out many time before) variables that are not in the drake equation:

    1. Probability that the intelligent life is so far away that we are going to be having a conversation with a, makes it all useless, delay,

    us: hello
    600 years later
    them: hi
    1200 years later
    …. etc

    2. Probabiltiy we can have a meaningful conversation. Given how often species on this planet talk to each other, they are most likely either going to be so much stupider or smarter than us that the conversation is going to be fairly pointless.

    1. N in Drake’s Equation is just “number of communicating civilizations.” You are right in that it doesn’t take these more complicated facets into account, and that is a good indicator of how far this discussion of interplanetary communication has come in 51 years.

      I get antsy if someone on IM takes too long to respond. I don’t know how we’d deal with a conversation that lasts generations!

  2. One other term missing from the Drake Equation is the self-referential one. “Fraction of potential communicating civilizations who use the Drake Equation to calculate the odds of there being anyone near enough to communicate and don’t discard the idea as futile or too expensive.”

    For years I have been expressing my concern that the only strong motive to radiate a message that no one may ever hear is a religious one. Alien televangelists and their flocks would gain credit with their local god just for trying to spread their gospel to other civilizations. I eventually discovered that this idea was not original, something similar was published in 1960 by Poul Anderson in his short story, “The Word to Space.”

    1. See also my response to benjaminsa regarding the incompleteness of the Drake Equation…

      I will have to check out that story! *Bookmark’d*

  3. Tonight 8:30 GMT Stargazing Live with Brian Cox on BBC 2! Presented by my favourite comedian Dara O Briain.

  4. That was fantastically written, Nicole! Really readable. :-)

    Loved this bit: “… our descendants will look back at this time in history as the time we started it all, with our little telescopes of glass and metal orbiting a tiny world in the outer edge of a spiral arm of just another galaxy in the Universe.”

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