Innovation

Earth 2.0: How data and technology are leading the search for habitable planets

Science writer Lee Billings says data has a long way to go helping us find a new home.

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Image: Erin Carson

Five hundred million years is a pretty good run, and it might be the end cap on the Earth's lifespan.

However, according to science writer Lee Billings, that's like telling a 45-year-old man that he's got five years left.

"We're really need to going to find some place else to live," he said in his talk, Five Billion Years of Solitude, at the 2014 IdeaFestival in Louisville, Kentucky.

He's not the only one thinking about it. This month Elon Musk expanded on previous statements about wanting to colonize Mars during an interview on the Colbert Report.

The key to potentially finding some other Earth-like planet out there in the midst of mind-bending amounts of empty space, might just be data, and lots of it.

To start, Billings discussed the recent "exoplanet boom." Exoplanets, he said, are those Earth-like planets, and in the past few years scientist have found thousands of stars with planets within habitable zones. That boom's come from the Kepler spacecraft's findings.

So, finding the planets aren't so much the problem, as being able to determine whether they're at all friendly.

One approach uses the idea of wobble— the pull planets have on their stars. It can help show the mass of the planet, but that's about it, and even the data to show wobble is thin.

Another tactic is transit spectroscopy, which has to do with a planet crossing its star's surface and casting a shadow on Earth. This method can give a rough idea of radial size. Billings talked about using what they know about size and mass to determine density— which on one hand is significant considering theses are other planets, but barely beginning to be sufficient in determining if a planet could be livable.

Billings also talked about the James Webb Space Telescope, an $8.7 billion dollar project from NASA, set to launch in 2018 that could further the transit spectroscopy. Though, Billings said, there are still planets that will be invisible to it due to their makeup — he'd like to see as big a sample size as possible. That would take a much larger mirror than the Webb telescope, more than twice the size.

"We need to do better before we pack our starships," he said.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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