Thursday, 13 November 2008

New planets: so what?

I've not had a lot of time to catch up with the news today, but did notice that the BBC and CNN had headlines about the latest big news in astronomy, the first images of planets around another star - "exoplanets" for want of a better name. I'm also a little confused because I blogged about a similar discovery a few weeks ago in "A long way away", but I need to read the actual papers first to understand my confusion.

This is clearly a major step forward in astronomy, but it might be worth reading a somewhat more cynical view from a cosmologist in "When you've seen one planet....". Well, that's science and astronomy, we all hold different views about what's important or not. I'm an astronomer that's interested in the Galaxy and has also indulged, occasionally, with the Solar System as well. Peter's a cosmologist and is interested in the universe itself.

In this case though, I actually lean towards Peter's view. We already know planets orbit other stars so what's the big deal? On the other hand I do feel this is a significant moment in observational astronomy. Given the opportunity I would certainly be proud to be the person who first imaged a planet around another star, but is this real science? It is just taking a picture after all.

What's significant, in my opinion, is that we can now do this.

Imaging planets around other stars is very difficult - it requires telescopes with technology we didn't have a few years ago - telescopes with current capabilities that the designers, engineers and astronomers didn't have in mind but have been implemented nevertheless.

Whether you're solar system expert, a Galactic astronomer, a cosmologist or just someone who's interested in astronomy, I think you have to agree that this is worth a little media attention.


Zuzana said...

Being a scientist myself, I think I can identify with the sentiment in your post. Any kind of discovery is worth our while. And to me discovering planets is definitely worth all the headlines it can get, even if this phenomenon is an common occurrence.

Beep said...

I like hearing about new planets. I have no idea why. It's not like I'm going to get to go visit them. Nor are they going to alleviate the shortage of decent places to rent here in California. Actually, they are probably pretty useless in a strictly practical sense. But I like them anyway.

Tom said...

Protege and Beep: I hope I didn't come across the wrong way - this is a huge step forward in astronomy - the first multiple planets to be imaged around another star. The thing is we already know planets exist around other stars (for about a decade now) so it's not a new discovery per se, but it's an extremely significant observation, probably historic, and demonstrates what we're now capable of doing.

I met one or two Keck people this evening (the telescope used to image the planets) and they are very excited!