Behold the exoplanets

There’s no substitute for the visceral experience of seeing something amazing with your own eyes. I’d always known about the Declaration of Independence, but it was something else to see the yellowed papers, in Jefferson’s own hand, on exhibit at the New York Public Library. I’d always admired photos and footage of coral reefs, but they’re nothing compared to the time I went snorkeling in a nature preserve: the fish — both charmingly small and unsettlingly large — swimming mere inches from my fingertips, and no bars or glass walls between me and the weird seascape of corals sliding by underneath. And I was familiar with pictures and CGI renderings of Saturn, but nothing beats the warm summer night this past July when I saw it for myself, through a NASA ambassador’s telescope, under a clear Hawaiian sky: the planet’s rings and entourage of moons magnified six hundred times, looking almost near enough to pluck, like berries, out of the inky dark.

And now, this: After years of inferring the existence of planets orbiting other suns from the telltale wobbles of stars, and relying on artists’ paintings to breathe life into the scientists’ raw data, we now have direct photographic evidence of these worlds. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy has put together a slideshow of some of the best exoplanet images to date, of which this picture — of an entirely different solar system, 130 light-years away — is, in my opinion, among the most astonishing:

Look at us. Imperfect primates evolved from even humbler forms, beset with the many troubles we’ve inflicted upon ourselves and upon the world. And yet, and yet, and yet: In the mere four centuries since the invention of the telescope — less than the blink of an eye in the long ages of the cosmos — we’ve learned how to look across the unimaginable distances of space, and see for ourselves what Democritus and Giordano Bruno and Thomas Paine could only guess at: the existence of other worlds around other suns. And perhaps we’ve made significant strides towards answering the question it seems we’ve been asking ourselves forever: Are we, in fact, alone?

Phil Plait dares to dream:

[W]ith the advent of spectroscopy, we’ll learn even more: how hot [exoplanets] are, and what they have in their atmospheres. Eventually, with new technology, new telescopes on space, we’ll be able to split their light ever finer, and who knows? Maybe, one day not too long from now, we’ll see the tell-tale sign of molecular oxygen… the only way we know of to have molecular oxygen in an atmosphere over long periods of time is through biological activity. If we ever see it… that, my friends, will be quite a day indeed.

I think that is ultimately our goal. We’re looking for planets now, but what we’re really looking for is life, or at least planets capable of supporting it. That day may be a long way off, but in my opinion it’s a day that will, eventually, come.

Chalk one up for a species that — blinkered as we still are — dares to keep seeking out what’s just beyond the horizon. There’s hope for us yet.

(Images via Bad Astronomy; see the entire slideshow here.)

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