The Accelerating Search for Exo-Planets

In the first 8 years of the 21st century I have witnessed an almost feverish acceleration of astronomer attention on the discovery of "exoplanets" - planets around stars other than our own Sun. Already some solar systems very similar to our own have been discovered and some tentative measurements of the atmospheric content of these planets is underway. In April 2008, a new method was announced for finding planets that are both in the habitable zone and have water on the surface. I believe it is only a matter of months or years before an oxygen-rich "earth-like" planet is discovered. Prognosticator of prognosticators that I am, I'll even go so far as to suggest a date: before the end of 2012.

But who cares when it happens, if it does happen, what then? What next? Will there be any debate that the concentration of oxygen implies that life is present on this newly discovered world? Will it take the imaging of an exoplanet to "prove" that life exists elsewhere in the universe? Will it take more?

And finally, will anyone care? Not the geeks. Not the astronomers or the scientists or the science fiction writers, but the average person on the street. At the time of writing, each exoplanet discovery is treated to an orgy of poorly understood journalism. It seems the idea of "planets around other stars" is something the mainstream audience can understand just enough and goes well to fill that slot in the news between the sports and the weather. Will this fad wear off by the time the startling discovery of exoplanet life is made? Or worse yet, will such an amazing discovery get exactly the same amount of coverage as the average exoplanet discovery gets now?

Ultimately the whole thing could be a terrible disappointment. Imagine, for a moment, that not only do astronomers discover life on an exoplanet but they actually discover intelligent life on an exoplanet. Pretty little pictures of roads and factories, ships at sea, planes and rockets in flight. Some serious questions would need to be directed towards the SETI program.. as it seems highly unlikely that a modern society could exist without emanating some signals that SETI should have picked up. Maybe a thorough search of the archives will reveal that many possible signals from that part of the sky were ignored accidentally.

In any case, now that we know they're there, how do we go about contacting them? Should we? Who gets to decide? Is that a pointless question as there's just no way to stop someone from sending a signal if they want to? And then there's the long long wait for the signal to get there and maybe no-one is listening or maybe the signal is too corrupted or just not decipherable by an alien mind. Decades may pass with no message returned. The general public will lose interest, although some people disagree with me on this. Can you imagine?

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