The Quest for a Living World

By Phil Plait | April 8, 2010 12:15 pm

I am very pleased and excited to announce that I will be moderating a fascinating panel in Pasadena California on Wednesday, April 21. The topic is "The Quest for a Living World": how modern astronomy is edging closer to finding another Earth orbiting a distant star.

[Click for a higher-res version.]

The panelists are all-stars in the field: Caltech astronomy professor John Johnson, Berkeley astronomer Gibor Basri, MIT planetary astronomer Sara Seager, and NASA Ames Research Center’s Tori Hoehler. We’ll be talking about how we’re looking for these new worlds, what the state of the art is, and perhaps toss around some of the philosophy of why we’re looking for them. You might think the answer is obvious, but I’ve found that astronomers have lots of intriguing reasons for why they do the work they do.

The event is sponsored by Discover Magazine, the Thirty Meter Telescope (yes, a project to build a telescope with a 30 meter mirror!), and Caltech. It will be at 7:30 p.m. at Caltech’s Beckman auditorium. It’s also free! Send an email to if you want to attend.

We’ll be taking questions from the audience, and if you have a question you’d like to submit in advance then we have an online form where you can send it.

Last year’s panel on astronomy frontiers was a lot of fun, and very well-attended. If you’re in the LA area, then I highly recommend you come! I know you’ll have a great time, and you’ll get a taste for some of the astronomical adventures in store for us in the next couple of years.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Science

Comments (27)

  1. BigBob

    30 Metre Telescope – droooooool.

  2. Plutonium being from Pluto

    Cool. Great poster, even better event! 8)

    Wish I could go to this myself. Sadly being in Australia and not rich makes that impossible – but I’m eagerly awaiting the BA’s reports on how this panel goes!

    Exoplanets and their amazing discoveries and the technologies involved to find these newfound worlds is, IMHON, the most marvellously superluminous (ie byond just brilliant) thing in astronomy right now. ūüėÄ

    I can’t wait to hear more. :-)

  3. Adrian Lopez

    This sounds very interesting. I wish you would stream it.

  4. andy

    So far, nearly all these exoplanets are bigger than Jupiter and hotter than Mercury

    This is not particularly accurate any more. Taking a look at the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, the median mass comes out as slightly less than half a Jupiter mass. Admittedly this is mostly the quantity m*sin(i), where i is the (usually) unknown inclination, so this isn’t a particularly well-defined quantity we’re dealing with, but it certainly looks like the super-Jupiters are in the minority.

    The median orbital period is about 300 days, so the “hotter than Mercury” assertion also doesn’t hold up. Despite the detection biases towards finding hot Jupiters (particularly where the transit surveys, e.g. Kepler, CoRoT are concerned), the majority of known extrasolar planets form part of a second and probably larger population: the eccentric Jupiters. These planets have periods exceeding ~100 days, and a wide range of orbital eccentricities (despite the name, the population extends down to near-circular orbits).

    The majority of known exoplanets are not hot Jupiters…

  5. It might be free but the ticket on the plane to get there isn’t.

  6. Dave Jerrard

    I was lucky enough to do some previs animation for the TMT. Check out their site at That’s a BIG scope.

    There are also plans for 40- and 50-meter scope in Europe, as well as a 100m one later on (yes, a tenth of a kilometer).

    He Who Would Love To See What Those Can See.

  7. Jason

    Any plans to videotape this? I would love to watch this!

  8. Tom (H. Type)

    So once you find a Earth like planet (and I have no doubt that you will in the next few years) and it is in the correct orbit and with lots of liquid water…. Then what?
    I guess we have a way of detecting life on this distant world?


  9. jcm

    Sound interesting and I wish I could go.

  10. You’re an author?

    (P.S. #8 Tom: one way to detect life is to detect free oxygen in the atmosphere of one of these planets, which is a matter of checking the spectrum when the planet transits its star. Free oxygen isn’t something that just shows up on its own. It’s too reactive. And that’s just one way that I know of.)

  11. Carey it’s, YOU WROTE A BOOK?
    (Yes, I have less of a life than everyone else.)

  12. Wayne on the plains

    @ 8 Tom,

    If we can get a spectrum from the planet, and if that spectrum shows free oxygen, that would be a very good sign. Lots of “ifs” though (including finding such a planet in the first place).

  13. Sadly, if you live in LA, where the ocean meets the sand, it’s pretty much out of the question to get there without taking the day off to drive through 3 hours of traffic :(

  14. James

    PHIL please say there is gonna be video… I would love to see this.

  15. Sander

    Way to go…..! I wish I could come.

  16. Jeff in Tucson

    Your TMT can suck on my GMT ;P

  17. BillyBob

    @6 Dave,

    The huge new European telescope will not be built in Europe. The telescope, named the European Extremely Large Telescope, is being built in Chile by the European Southern Observatory. It is planned to be a 42 meters in diameter and will be completed in 2016. This, along with the Thirty Meter Telescope and the ~21 meter Giant Magellan Telescope (also in Chile) are the first three of the new class of telescopes called Extremely Large Telescopes.

    I think Galileo would get a kick out of these things.

  18. Wayne Robinson

    What I want for Christmas. An Earth-sized exoplanet, at about the right distance from its star to have liquid water on its surface, free oxygen in its atmosphere and a moon similar in size to our Moon orbiting it to provide stability to its rotation. I think having a Moon-sized satellite will eventually be shown to be necessary to evolve complex and hence intelligent life on a planet.

  19. amphiox

    I think a detection of free methane would also do the trick.
    As would an absorption spectra consistent with chlorophyll.
    And, of course, radio emissions, too.

    Actually any evidence of a persistent disequilibrium state in the atmosphere would be highly suggestive.

    Of course, we don’t yet have the technical capability to accurate measure all of the possibilities. But one can be fairly certain that if such a world is found, there will be a surge of interest and funding in obtaining/achieving/perfecting said technical capacity REAL FAST!

  20. George Martin

    April 21 is on Wednesday.

  21. Jeffersonian

    30 meters. Holy crap!

  22. GregB

    To follow on from Tom (comment #8)-

    Supposing we’ve found an earth sized planet and that all evidence points towards the likelihood that the conditions are conducive to supporting life, which in itself would be enormously exciting, then what?

    Wouldn’t that leave us in the frustrating position of being fairly certain that there is life out there but not being able to:
    a) establish what forms of life exist there
    b) send probes to gather more information
    c) send communication in the hope that life there has advanced to such a point that it can receive, make sense of it and respond

    I realise that, initially, the point of looking for extrasolar planets is not to make contact with alien lifeforms, it is to help us better understand the universe we live in. Are we not a long, long way from being able to achieve any of the above though? Let me add that I am gripped by the advances in technology that are allowing us to ‘see’ these extrasolar planets and that I’m not here to p**s on anyone’s bonfire. I’m just curious as to what we’d do next…

  23. Astrofiend

    22. GregB Says:
    April 9th, 2010 at 3:24 am

    It’s a valid question GregB. I think the next steps would be in the form of giant space-based interferometers, but you’d have to wonder after that…

  24. crf

    That the TMT will be built is still not a sure thing.
    If you are interested in it, learn more about it, and if you support it, make sure you tell your (Canadian or American) elected representives!

  25. Faucher

    I hope we get some good video footage. I won’t be able to attend, but I’d love to see what went on.

  26. >>MIT planetary astronomer Sara Seager<<


    And randomness: In the Science Reference course I took as part of my MLS (Masters in Library Science), I ended up doing extensive research on Seager and her work for an assignment (Click username if exceptionally bored). Knew nothing if either prior, just picked her from a list. Became a big fan in the process, as well as utterly fascinated by all things exoplanet, which in turn sparked a latent interest in astronomy in general, which soon brought BA to my attention…


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