When planets align, possibilities are endless

Finally, after years of scientific quest and struggle, the question can be asked: How many Polocks does it take to find a new planet? Surprisingly, the answer is “Just one.”

Actually, the Polock in question, Andrzej Udalski, wasn’t acting alone: He is the leader of a team of astronomers at Warsaw University and is just one of dozens of scientists participating in Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE), which incorporates telescopic arrays in 10 countries around the world. It was pure serendipity that the stars aligned – literally – so that Udalski’s team could be the first to spot the new rock on July 11, 2005.

Alphanumerically christened in the roll-off-the-tongue way only an astronomer can, planet OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb is believed to be a rocky mass five times the size of Earth and covered with frozen oceans, according to National Geographic. It is estimated to orbit its red dwarf star (which is one-fifth the size of our sun) about once every 10 years, and its distance from that star (three times that of Earth from the sun) puts it at a Wisconsinesque minus 220 degrees Celsius (minus 364 degrees Fahrenheit). And the best part? It’s a mere 20,000 light years away.

In terms of established criteria, the new planet is considered “Earth-like.” But scientists have no illusions about skipping over there to try “terraforming” it ala Aliens, so as far as the planet itself goes, it’s something of a non-issue to the average citizen. What has scientists elated, though, is the possibilities implicit in “gravitational microlensing,” the technique used to discover the new planet. Microlensing is a process by which bodies previously too distant or small to view become magnified by the gravitational field of a star passing between the Earth and the body in question.

I’m oversimplifying here, but this is what finishing your undergrad science requirements at community college gets you.

What this really means is that even if 390Lb is something of a footnote, the hunt for the “next Earth” is now going into full swing. This will mean different things to different people, but I’m betting the primary categorical obsession will be the quest for extraterrestrial life inherent in the notion of a life-sustaining atmosphere.

Philosophically, this possibility is bigger than anything we’re tarrying about here on this planet. So the question becomes, can we stop blowing each other up long enough to focus on this? You there – yes, you: Quit trying to “push each other into the ocean.” You know who you are.Fiscally, this requires a reprioritization in government spending – at least as far as the United States is concerned. NASA’s budget for FY 2006 was elevated to $16.5 billion, which pales in comparison with the money we’re projected to dump into our seemingly endless Magical Middle Eastern Mystery Tour during any given year in the next decade. If I believed that this spending – over $237 billion in Iraq so far, according to the National Priorities Project – was getting us closer to an agreeable end, I’d be all for it; but seeing as how it’s now on the verge of leading to a kaleidoscopic mess in neighboring Middle Eastern states, I’d just as soon look to the heavens and structure the budget accordingly.

But suppose we do get our act together, discovering a planet that is not only reachable, but also inhabitable – what then? It’s absurd to imagine a planet with a life-sustaining capacity that does not sustain life. If we find this kitchen, the cupboards will not be bare.

I want you to just imagine what sort of religious freak-out is likely to ensue at such a moment of discovery. The sacred concept of the redemptive soul, having taken centuries just to be applied to the entire human race, would go back to square one – us vs. them on a galactic scale. And hey, what if their religious zealots are even crazier than our religious zealots? What if their Jesus is better than our Jesus? What if it’s a planet of 30 billion godless communists? Holy crap – what if they’ve found a way to make communism work?

This is only conjecture and frankly, the most alarming kind; but I’m only drawing on history here. While there’s nothing which necessitates a mean-spirited collision with whomever may be “out there,” you don’t have to examine too much of our track record on this issue to discover that the bar hasn’t been set terribly high.

Personally, I am not hoping for a discovery of this kind soon. Although the new horizon is exciting, I’d prefer we sort things out peaceably among our fellow man before we decide how we’ll greet the next great evolution in social history.

Ryan McGeeney is a senior majoring in political science.