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The Search for Living Planets

by Alan Boss

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-465-00936-7
Publisher: Basic

An astronomer’s tale of the search for extrasolar planets, including a critique of NASA’s role.

Boss, a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution, takes a largely chronological approach to the story of planet-finding, one of the great frontiers in astronomy. He begins in 1995, when Canadian Gordon Walker concluded a 12-year study of 21 stars with the report that he had found no evidence of planets circling them. This was only the latest in a number of attempts—which Boss briefly summarizes—to determine by Doppler analysis of nearby stars’ light whether any massive body was revolving around them. Similar efforts were being mounted by astronomers in several countries, and in October 1995, Swiss astronomer Michel Mayor announced that, using a variation of Walker’s technique, his team had detected a planet around the nearby star 51 Pegasi. That apparently broke the logjam, as planets began to turn up around lots of stars. While most were Jupiter-sized, hugging their stars closely, Earthlike worlds were out there too—though the ones found in the early days were all larger than Earth. Meanwhile, a new space race was in the offing, with the United States and Europe as the players. Finding earthlike planets—and potentially life-bearing ones—would require an upgrading of the orbiting telescopes that give the most sensitive readings of light from distant stars. Both NASA and the European space agency began drawing up space missions designed for planet-finding. At that point, writes Boss, NASA began to drop the ball. He details the fates of several ambitious planet-finding projects, including the Kepler space telescope, now planned for launch in 2009. Other projects have been combined, pushed to the back burner and even canceled—and Europe has built its lead in exoplanet research while NASA dithered. Boss is no jingoist; he salutes good science, whatever the national origin. But NASA’s fumbles and cutbacks clearly annoy him, and readers may think he goes overboard analyzing them.

Solid coverage of one of the most exciting topics in science, but the bureaucratic infighting almost spoils the party.