Yesterday’s high-tension arrival on Mars raises inescapable thoughts about future missions. Even the fastest spacecraft we can build today take years to reach the outer planets (New Horizons won’t reach Pluto/Charon until 2015), and targets deep in the Kuiper Belt, much less the Oort Cloud, conjure up potential missions longer than a human lifetime. Imagine the arrival of a robotic interstellar probe around, say, Epsilon Eridani, not a few years after launch, but a few generations. How would the team feel that took that final handoff from previous researchers, people who had invested their lives in a mission whose end they knew they would never see?
Thus we make the segue back into interstellar matters, with today’s Phoenix operations still very much in mind. And I want to go quickly to the recent COROT announcement, for the doughty spacecraft has been hard at work observing its sixth star field, a sweep of some 12,000 stars that began in early May. The team presented two new planets at the IAU symposium on transiting planets in Boston, which just concluded on Friday the 23rd. Both are gas giants in the ‘hot Jupiter’ category, but two other COROT objects are even more interesting (and thanks to Vincenzo Liguori for another early heads-up on COROT news).
For the object called COROT-exo-3b may well be a cross between a brown dwarf and a planet. With a mass some twenty times Jupiter’s (based on ground-based follow-up observations) and a radius somewhat less than Jupiter’s, it is said to be twice as dense as platinum. Another potential signature may mark the existence of an exoplanet a mere 1.7 times Earth’s radius, although that one has yet to be confirmed.
Based on all the Boston results, you have to believe that what Greg Laughlin calls ‘transit fever’ is catching hold. Here I have to quote the UC-Santa Cruz astronomer, recently back from the abovementioned IAU meeting. Calling this the most exciting conference he ever attended, Laughlin adds:
Planetary transits are no longer the big deal of the future. They’re the big deal of the right here right now. Spitzer, Epoxi, MOST, HST and CoRoT are firing on all cylinders. The ground-based surveys are delivering bizarre worlds by the dozen. And we’re clearly in the midst of very rapid improvement of our understanding of the atmospheres and interiors of the planets that are being discovered.
The HARPS planet survey alone, tracking solar-type stars of classes F, G and K, has not only been accumulating data and tightening the profiles of existing planets, but has forty-five additional candidates in the hopper, not counting red dwarf possibilities. I’ve often said that we are in the golden age of planetary discovery, but it’s clearly an age that is only beginning as we not only tighten up our transit methods but improve our radial velocity techniques to find ever less massive worlds. Can a terrestrial-class world around a Sun-like star be that many years away?