So the House convened yet another hearing on Thursday, this time with some of the smartest space people in the country, to check in and see if they've found us a new planet to live on — preferably with water, oxygen, moderate temperatures, and giraffes. According to the scientists, we're still a ways away from life on Earth 2, but the first thing they need before awesome light-speed space ships to take us to our new home is a gigantic telescope.
That may seem like relatively unsexy news considering the sexy title of the hearing, "Exoplanet Discoveries: Have We Found Other Earths?" You know, exoplanets — as in planets outside our solar system. The subcommittee meeting wasn't called, "Hey, Ask Us to Pay for a Big Thing." But that's more or less what Dr. Laurance Doyle (of SETI), Dr. John Grunsfled (NASA), and Dr. Ulvestad (NSF) did at a hearing Thursday morning headed up by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). Because if we want to find oxygen and aliens on other planets, we're gonna need to get see it first. This wasn't that fake hearing about actual aliens, after all.
Princeton astrophysicist Lucianna M. Walkowicz has an excellent (read: in plain English) play-by-play of the hearing (which you should go check out). But here's the exchange between Smith and the scientists dealing with that "Other Earth" part:
Smith: Are there other missions we should consider for exoplanet science? Or just the ones scoped now?
Grunsfeld: We're well planned—nature will determine when we find a true earth-like planet.
Doyle: We're on track, will eventually need to follow through to detect exo life.
So, have we found other earths? Doyle and Grunsfeld and say not yet, no — not really. So, unfortunately, it looks like KOI 172.2, what was touted in January as the "most Earth-like alien planet" we've ever found, still isn't close enough to Earth to count. Bummer. But the two scientists did say that we're on the right track. And that's good, because we don't really want to be on the wrong one. But did you catch what Doyle did there? He set the table for asking for more research (read: money) to build a bigger telescope. They've got some ideas, but here's how they're asking Congress, space budget cuts and all:
Smith: What new tech do we need to expedite finding life on an exoplanet?
Doyle: You need a much larger telescope - detection of oxygen would be of interest.
Smith: Can we detect oxygen now?
Doyle: We might be able to squeeze something out of just the right target. TESS will hope to find that target.
Grunsfeld: Need to block light from a star to get at planet - in 5 years should have tech to get signal from plane
Ulvestad: Right now direct imaging only detects far-out planets like Jupiter - got a ways to go to find Earths that way.
So essentially these guys need better telescopes to see space better and find more earths for us. And that might not happen if we continue to cut funding to our space programs, like the proposed 2014 cuts to NASA. "The Obama administration unveiled the budget plan April 10, requesting $17.7 billion for NASA — $50 million less than the agency got in 2012," Space.com reported last month, describing a move which critics say would sabotage a mission to the Europa, one of Jupiter's moons that could support life. Obama wants to lasso asteroids instead, apparently.
And as Walkowicz, points out, budgets and spending were very much at issue in Thursday's hearing:
That's slightly depressing and perhaps more depressing than no earths at all.