[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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[CBC Radio One]

Science FACTion

Extrasolar Earthlike Planets

Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer writes and presents a weekly science column for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Radio One.

The columns, which have the umbrella title Science FACTION: Commentaries from the Cutting Edge of Science, are produced by Barbara Saxberg in Toronto, and syndicated to local CBC Radio stations across Canada.

Recorded 23 June 2003

Host: Everybody knows our solar system has nine planets in it, and we can live unaided on only one of them — the good old Earth. But what if there were other Earths? Science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer looks to the heavens for new homes for humanity.

Sound: The opening of Star Trek: "Space, the final frontier ..."

Robert J. Sawyer: Those are probably the most famous words ever uttered by a Canadian. When William Shatner noted that space was the final frontier, he couldn't have been more correct. And if things go well in the next couple of years, we're finally going to start opening up that frontier.

Music: Jupiter (from Holst's "The Planets")

We've already found more than a hundred planets outside our solar system — other worlds orbiting other stars. Here's how we do it: we look at a star through a very powerful telescope and see if it's weaving from side to side as it moves across the sky. If it is, we infer that an unseen companion — a planet — is tugging at the star while orbiting around it. The problem is that only really big planets, like Jupiter, can make a star visibly wobble. And Jupiter, sad to say, is not very hospitable: it's a huge ball of gas, with crushing gravity.

Sound Effect: Running stream

Also, most of the planets we've found are too close to, or too far away from, their suns to have liquid water, something we believe is necessary for life. A habitable world has to orbit in a Goldilocks zone, neither too close to the star, where it's too hot, or too far away from the star, where it's too cold.

Now, a new technique has been devised for finding smaller planets. In 2006, NASA will launch Kepler, a super-sensitive space telescope that will turn an eagle eye on thousands of stars. It'll watch to see if the light from a star periodically dims a bit — such a dimming could be caused by a small planet passing between Kepler and the star as it orbits around the star. In other words, this new technique will let us find planets much smaller than those we've previously been able to detect. Later space telescopes will do spectroscopic analyses of the atmospheres of these little worlds, looking for ones that are similar to Earth.

The discovery of other Earth-like planets will be as important as the discovery of those continents we collectively refer to as `the New World' was five hundred years ago. Such planets will beckon to us — and ultimately, we will travel to them. It's what we've always done as a species; just as `because it's there' was reason enough for Edmund Hillary to scale Everest, so too will the mere presence of another inhabitable world compel us to visit it.

And, indeed, we will eventually do more than just visit. All the reasons that people left Europe and Asia for North America — freedom to pursue their religious beliefs, lack of economic opportunity at home, oppressive local governments, and plain simple adventure — apply equally well to going to another planet.

Music: Mars (from Holst's "The Planets")

Right now, we're stuck on this particular world, simply for lack of somewhere appealing to go. Oh, Mars does indeed call out to us, and while it's true that it's the most habitable world other than Earth in our solar system, it's also true that it's substantially less habitable than Antarctica. Engineers, explorers, and scientists will go to Mars — but generations of regular folk, of immigrants looking for new opportunities, will go to the many Earth-like worlds we will discover in the next few years.

In the future, human beings living on — well, let's call it "Eden," the first unspoiled garden world we go to orbiting some nearby sun — those living on Eden will perhaps refer to themselves as Earthling-Edenites, just as many people today identify themselves as, say, Italian-Canadians: they'll acknowledge with pride where they came from, but also accept that their real home is the new world they've gone to.

I'm Robert J. Sawyer.

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