Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

NASA's New Lease on Life: The Hunt for Alien Planets Getting on with Other Half of Copernican Revolution

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

NASA's New Lease on Life: The Hunt for Alien Planets Getting on with Other Half of Copernican Revolution

Article excerpt

SEARCHING for alien planets circling other stars may seem to be merely a romantic quest for a handful of astronomers. But for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration it could help provide a guiding theme for space exploration as the agency struggles to redefine its mission.

That theme would be to complete the Copernican revolution, says Robert Brown of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Copernicus changed humanity's stellar view by showing that the sun - not Earth - is the center of that system. "By discovering other planetary systems, we'll complete another facet of that revolution, which is to put our solar system in the context of planetary systems universally," Dr. Brown explains.

Technology has progressed to the point where astronomers now can specify the instruments and techniques needed to image alien worlds. And they can reasonably expect some of those instruments to be in place over the next 10 years. Thanks to "the great investment" that has been made in both ground-based and space-based astronomy, "we're finally on the verge of being able to actually detect {alien} planets," Brown said.

In this outline presented during the annual meeting here of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Brown noted that the "climate change" in Washington is forcing the agency to rethink its whole rationale for science. Pursuing science for its own sake no longer justifies funding.

There has to be a more direct benefit for taxpayers. NASA "is seriously contemplating using this theme of the search for other planets," Brown said, because it reaches beyond the interests of specialists and deals with questions of universal interest - such as, are we alone here, or are there other habitable worlds? And the quest for answers would also sharpen the strategy for exploring our own solar system. …

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