Of course, there are still 7 hours and 13 days left until the close of 2009, but I’ve got every confidence that the discovery of the decade has landed on the ground. The Mearth project has found a transiting 6.55 Earth-mass planet in orbit around the nearby red dwarf star GJ 1214. The parent star is bright enough, and the planet-star area ratio is large enough so that direct atmospheric characterization will be possible not just with JWST, but with HST. Incredible. I’m inspired, invigorated, envious. This discovery is a game changer.
The GJ1214 discovery is all over the news today. The coverage is deservedly laudatory, but interestingly, the most dramatic aspect of the detection received rather short schrift. This is easily the most valuable planet yet found by any technique, and the discovery, start to finish, required an investment of ~500K (along with the equivalent of 1-2 nights of HARPS time to do the follow-up confirmation and to measure the planet’s mass). By contrast, well over a billion dollars has been spent on the search for planets.
I’m milking that contrast for drama, of course. It’s true that GJ1214b is low-hanging fruit. The team with the foresight to arrive on the scene first gets to pick it. And the last thing I’m suggesting is a cut in the resources devoted to exoplanet research — it’s my whole world, so to speak. I do think, though, that Mearth epitomizes the approach that will ultimately yield the planets that will give us the answers we want. You search for transits among the brightest stars at given spectral type, and you design your strategy from the outset to avoid the impedance mismatches that produce bottlenecks at the RV-confirmation stage.
There’s a factor-of-fourteen mass gap in our solar system between the terrestrial planets and the ice giants, and so with the discovery of Gl 1214b (and the bizzare CoRoT-7b) we’re getting the “last first look” at a fundamentally new type of planet. CoRoT-7b is clearly a dense iron-silicate dominated object, but it likely didn’t form that way. Gliese 1214b’s radius indicates that it probably contains a lot of water. I think this is going to turn out to be the rule as more transiting objects in the Earth-to-Neptune mass range are detected.
So what next? With a modest increase in capability, Mearth is capable of going after truly habitable planets orbiting the very nearest stars. I think it’s time to put some money down…