It will be a long time before you see another exoplanet on a front page

Last week we rejigged a few things at The Economist so that a big piece I had been working on about space technology came out in the same week as the news about Proxima Centauri b. This made a lot of sense for us; it also seemed likely to fit with the rest of the world’s agenda, because I and my colleagues believed that Proxima Centauri b would be big, splashy news. As it turned out it was quite big, but not *big* big; not gravitational-wave big or Higgs big or indeed New Horizons big. Barely Juno orbital insertion big. As far as I could see it graced only a few front pages (Washington Post, IIRC) and then not above the fold. After hitting the Wednesday evening news on the BBC it didn’t show much follow through on the Thursday. Noticed, yes; big news, no.

Overestimating the space the story took up on the news agenda didn’t do any harm, but it did make me wonder why I had done so, and so I thought about it and asked around a bit on twitter. One possible explanation was that the story had leaked, a bit, in Der Spiegel a few weeks before, but I’d be surprised if that mattered all that much. A bigger issue was almost certainly the lack of pictures. Nature and the ESO provided an artist’s rendition of the planet’s surface by Martin Kornmesser, but while nice enough it basically looked like a matte painting for Star Trek: The Next Generation. No news editor would have looked at it and said “front page”.

Lack of art can kill a story (and good art can get one undue column centimetres), but there is also something else at play. Various people suggested to me on twitter that the public has become a little blase about exoplanets, possibly because they have been a bit oversold. (One person suggested that astronomers may have cried wolf too often, which I mention mainly in order to link to this bit of brilliance from Mitchell and Webb). With regular announcements of planets more “earthlike” than the last — but with no evidence that any of them is actually remotely like the Earth — the fact that this one was nearer than any of the others hardly seemed like that big of a step forward. Astronomers are delighted; being near means it can be studied, certainly with the E-ELT and perhaps the GMT or TMT next decade, possibly with the JWST rather sooner, or if it turns out to be transiting with any number of other instruments. But the fact that this Earth sized exoplanet discovery can be followed up, while setting it apart for the cognoscenti, was not enough to turn this very, very distant thing that is a lot less distant than some *really* distant things into front-page news.

Which makes me wonder what would be enough. A good Seti signal? Yes, that’d do it. A picture of an exoplanet in the habitable zone around Alpha Centauri A (or conceivably B) might do it — and might be taken by a surprisingly small space telescope — but only if a) such a planet exists and b) such a telescope gets built. Spectroscopic detection of water and/or oxygen in the atmosphere of a transiting Earth-like exoplanet in a habitable zone might do it, too, even without art. But that’s about it. Proxima Centauri B marks the beginning of a new phase in astrobiological exoplanet research; as Sara Seager said to me when I was reporting our piece, once people know what they are looking at they may find all sorts of new approaches and cunning hacks by which to learn more. It may also mark a new quiet time for front-page exoplanets.