Imagine a NASA press conference…
Story alert! Fiction alert. A bit of fun…
“Ladies and gentlemen of the world’s scientific community. Thank you for attending today’s press conference. I’m Kurt, press spokesman for NASA.” Said a pleasant looking man sitting at the front of a packed media room.
“Firstly some housekeeping. As you know, we took away most of your cells today before you came in. This is standard procedure for conferences where we live steam the content. Apparently NASA could do with the rights’ revenues, so we didn’t want to have any of your Facebook live accounts stealing our thunder.
Second up, today is Jim Gremaux’s birthday. Jim was one of the first guys to work out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and he’s just hit his 100th birthday – the first ever staffer from across the space programmes to become a centenarian. Please briefly show your appreciation.
Thanks. [applause continues for a moment.]
Now, to the main event. With me I have John Liddow, lead astrologer on the Kepler exoplanet search programme. He’s not going to say much until Q&A – hopefully to explain a bunch of acronyms I make a hash of. Next to him is Jenny Hardy, astrophysicist here at Goddard. To her right is Lens Philsson, lead so-called citizen scientist who has long participated in the WISE programme.
As many of you know, the Kepler and TESS programmes to hunt for exoplanets got a great shot in the arm last year when a team of citizen scientists explored the so-called Carina association. It’s a region of space near the Carina nebula – and it’s been a treasure trove of new discoveries by Lens and his colleagues around the world.
We will firstly be able to report today that around 11 new terran-like exoplanets have already been listed. Sadly, the relatively young age of the nebula – in cosmological terms – inevitably means that these planets are likely too young for life to have evolved, even if that were feasible. But the insight gained from this association was incredible. These nebulae are both the babies and nurseries in terms of planetary solar systems around distant stars.
We looked at the data and tried to figure out where else these kind of nebula nurseries might have existed. Our aim, along with Lens and other scientific assets around the world, was to find the toddlers, the adolescents – if that makes sense. And we did.
I’ll take a break now and hand over to Jenny.” Said Kurt.
“As you know The Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL) is dedicated to studies of the habitability of our own planet and indeed exoplanets we’ve discovered across the universe.
Scientists from around the world have been working on the ability to simulate what exoplanets would look like, based on our own interpretation of earth’s appearance from space throughout its evolution. This is used to model prospective exos we find and create a probable visual representation. Equally, and I’m talking to the wider audience here, we also have metrics to gauge the length of a planet’s year and it’s probability of playing host to liquid water, each relative to Earth up to a factor of 1.0.
Using data like the Earth Similarity Index or ESI, to save time, we’ve been able to categorise those planets most like our own. Specifically we prioritise and rank those we discover out there in the habitable zone of stellar flux. Or in lay terms – the Goldilocks zone.
This has led to the categorising of around forty planets which could be habitable.
I’ll leave this last part to Kurt and Lens until the Q&A.” Said Jenny.
“Me again.” Said Kurt.
“You guys are probably shuffling about on those plastic chairs wondering what we are about to tell you. Well, it was just what Jenny said. We knew we had a few dozen candidates. And for the last year or so we’ve also been directing other efforts toward these potentially habitable candidates.
Lens?” Said Kurt.
“Kepler 452-b is a delightful planet. It is 1.3 times the size of earth. Home to liquid water, as we now know, and has just over 384 days in a year. Whilst it only scored 0.73 ESI, that did not seem to have a bearing on its ability to enthrall us. My team and I have focused most of our efforts on this and six other planets. The team at NASA have also been creating new techniques to appraise planetary systems.
We’ve found new ways to explore the atmospheres and mineral composition of these planets and we can now say with absolute surety that 452-b is habitable.” Said Lens, promptly stopping as the room lit up with raised hands, snapping lenses and loud mutterings.
Kurt watched it all, and a grin spread across his mouth.
“So, who has done their homework and can tell me what the VVI is?” He said. The room went quiet and a single arm raised.
“Yes, Joe, New Scientist, right?” Said Kurt.
“That’s right Kurt. Um, VVI is the visible vegetation index. And stop teasing already!” He said, to widespread chuckling.
“That’s right Joe – and who said anything about teasing? The VVI of this exo came back extremely positive.” He added.
“So guess what, no more waiting, because we have to tell you about the elusive wow.” He added.
The room went quiet. No one said a word. They knew what he meant.
“Ok. I can tell none of you want to ruin this moment or look dumb by interrupting or missing my hint. So I will just come out with it.
We also have another more secret acronym. Because once we figured out how to search for vegetation, we tested out some ways to see other features, too, both organic and synthetic. It’s called the VCI. And this place got a 1.0.
It has taken humanity hundreds of thousands of years. We’ve tried unsuccessfully to destroy ourselves but still the better part of our soul keeps the lights of progress on.
That light has too often seemed to glow lonely into the cosmos.
But, as of two months ago, and subject to successful and very rigorous peer review, we have been able to scientifically verify something rather wonderful.” He paused. The entire room seemed to hang, hold its breath and almost collectively tense up.
“Lens and his team found them. We are not alone in the universe. Visible Civilisation exists, out there.”
“Questions?” He said, grinning as pandemonium, tears, hugs and hi-fives erupted in front of him.