Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The Final Frontier

The historic first image of a planet circling another star may have been taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The "planet", 5-10 times the mass of Jupiter, is orbiting a small white dwarf star about 100 light-years away.

Astronomers are being cautious, saying they require more data to be sure it really is a planet and not a background object caught in the same field of view.

Confirmation will come if follow-up observations can show the planet and the star moving together through space.

Over the past 10 years, scientists have discovered more than 120 so-called exoplanets. However, all have been found by indirect methods - none was photographed directly.

In case you didn't know, I'm a pretty big space buff. News like this is rather inspiring, and it gives me hope for the future. Perhaps I've read too much science fiction, but I feel like humankind is now scraping the surface of something of immense importance. I don't think we'll ever be able to conquer the stars, but that doesn't mean we won't be able to explore them from our own backyard. This is why the decisions made by George Bush and Sean O'Keefe recently have bothered me. I feel like we're not prioritizing the right things. The Winston-Salem Journal recently opined on the subject:

Returning to the moon and then getting to Mars will be tremendously expensive, its costs measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars over the next two decades. Bush has promised to increase NASA funding to help pay for that exploration. But the president has also made it clear that NASA must find a significant portion of the exploration funds from its existing budget, and that has the potential to delay or kill important scientific inquiries.

The highest-profile cut will be the loss of the Hubble Space Telescope, which has given scientists their best look ever into deep space. NASA has canceled the shuttle trip that was intended to service Hubble, and that will mean Hubble's loss within the next several years. NASA is replacing Hubble with the James Webb Space Telescope, but that won't be launched until 2011.

Other scientific projects, most not as well known to the public as Hubble, will be delayed or cut. These are projects that Congress has backed because they are the consensus choices of many scientific associations throughout the country. They may not be as well understood as a ride to the moon or a telescope that can peer deep into the universe, but they offer both long-term benefits to the knowledge base of science and to the practical information needed in today's world...

NASA's earth-science budget has been reduced by about $1 billion. This money was to have gone for studies of global warming and worldwide precipitation. At best, the projects will now be undertaken several years behind schedule. With these delays, critical time is being lost, time that might have been used to take the information discovered in these studies and convert it to important improvements to life on earth. More dangerously, these delays in research might lead to the killing of some projects...

Manned exploration is important, too. But it should not be paid for with funds originally dedicated to the kind of scientific discovery that has brought so much improvement to those living in the modern era.

But there is still a small sliver of hope. Public outcry about the demise of the space telescope has caused NASA to consider unmanned options for trying to service the Hubble, although I'm not convinced they're all that sincere or likely to work. The KC Star has more.


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