In the search for life beyond our planet, astrophysicists and astronomers are usually the starring characters. Through SETI, they are listening for transmissions from aliens, and through telescopes like Kepler and research in arid regions of Earth they are studying what it might take for life to arise elsewhere. But those scientists are themselves being studied: by anthropologists. Wired has a thoughtful interview with Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist who specializes in understanding how people think about space exploration and alien life. Here’s one choice tidbit, in which she describes what she thinks of one common story of first contact: a signal from intelligent life electrifies humanity, which subsequently settles its differences and unites under a common banner.
Denning: One way to read that, in the most general sense, is that it’s a narrative that makes us feel better.
Last month, when astronomers with the Kepler space telescope released a list of 1,235 possible planets orbiting other stars, one particular candidate, KOI 326.01, especially stood out. Scientists, journalists, and the general public couldn’t help it: In a population of planetary candidates dominated by sizzling, Jupiter-sized gas giants—which are much easier to spot—here was the closest thing yet to our very own planet. It was just about the size of Earth, even a little smaller, and had a temperature around 138 degrees—rather warm for human tastes, but still a place where liquid water could rain down from clouds into oceans, and where life as we know it could possibly exist. A clever but perhaps overambitious monetary calculation valued the planet at exactly $223,099.93.
Alas, KOI 326.01’s 15 minutes of fame must now end. Additional analysis of the planet’s star now suggests that the planet is a lot larger, and most likely a lot hotter, than previously thought. “The details of the planet need to be hammered out, but this certainly means that this is not an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone,” where liquid water could exist, says Natalie Batalha, a Kepler team member.
The road to demotion began when a DISCOVER fact-checker, Mara Grunbaum, asked for some additional information about the planet. In response, Batalha and her colleagues dug up images of the sky near KOI 326.01—and almost immediately found a problem. The planet’s sun, known as KIC 9880467, is located close to another star (see above). In a reference catalog characterizing the stars in the probe’s field of view, KIC 9880467 is listed as brighter than its neighbor. But as you can easily see in the above image, that is not the case.
That simple error messes up the calculations of the planet’s temperature and size. Kepler finds planets by detecting tiny dips in a star’s brightness during transits—when a planet crosses in front of it. When the Kepler team analyzed the combined light from the two stars, they assumed KIC 9880467 accounted for most of the brightness. Now they have to chalk up almost all that light to the neighboring star. In fact, while Batalha is still confident KOI 326.01 exists, she is no longer sure which of the two nearby stars it is orbiting. In either case, the calculations indicate that the planet is somewhat warmer and a lot larger than the previous estimate. And if it is orbiting the bright, neighboring star, as Batalha suspects, the planet’s temperature will soar. More analysis is required, but it’s safe to say that KOI 326.01 should no longer be considered potentially habitable.