We know that planets aren’t rare, and by now, with the tally over at the extrasolar planet encyclopedia poised to blast past 200, the announcement of a newly discovered run-of-the-mill Jupiter-sized planet barely raises the collective eyebrow.
The headline that everyone is anticipating is the discovery, or better yet, the characterization of a truly habitable world — a wet, Earth-sized terrestrial planet orbiting in the habitable zone of a nearby star. Who is going to get to this news first, and when?
299 million dollars of smart money says that Kepler, a NASA-funded Discovery mission currently scheduled for launch in June 2008, will take the honors. The Kepler spacecraft will fly in an Earth-trailing 377.5 day orbit, and will employ a 1-meter telescope to stare continuously (for at least four years straight) at a patchwork of 21 five-square-degree fields of the Milky Way in the direction of the constellation Cygnus. Every 15 minutes, the spacecraft will produce integrated photometric brightness measurements for ~100,000 stars, and for most of these stars, the photometric accuracy will be better than one part in 10,000. These specs should allow Kepler to detect transits of Earth-sized planets in front of Solar-type stars.
Kepler has a dedicated team, a solid strategy, and more than a decade of development work completed. It’s definitely going to be tough to cut ahead of Bill Borucki in line. Does anyone else stand a chance?
Practitioners of the microlensing technique have a reasonably good shot at detecting an Earth-mass planet before Kepler, but microlensing-detected planets are maddeningly ephemeral. There are no satisfying possibilities for follow-up and characterization. Doppler RV has been making tremendous progress in detecting ever-lower mass planets, but it seems a stretch that (even with sub-1 meter per second precision) the RV teams will uncover a truly habitable world prior to Kepler, although they may well detect a hot Earth-mass planet.
There is one possibility, however, whereby just about anyone could detect a habitable planet (1) from the ground, (2) within a year, and (3) on the cheap. Stay tuned…