Science and Religion: Super-Earths, Mega-Earths, and Answers from a Mega-Book

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In July 2015, NASA announced that their Kepler space telescope had found a super-Earth—one of the most earth-like planets ever found. Known as an exoplanet because it’s outside our solar system, Kepler-452b, orbits a live star about 1,400 light years from us that is similar in size and brightness to our own sun. Of particular importance is the fact that this planet is within the special habitable zone of its star, an orbital region where it is possible for water to remain in a liquid state. Earlier in the year, the Kepler mission reached a milestone of more than 1,000 exoplanets discovered since its 2009 launch. Exoplanets can be detected by using powerful telescopes to observe various effects a planet has on its host star. Programs similar to the Kepler mission include the European Southern Observatory and its HARPS spectrograph, the UK’s SuperWASP, and University of California Observatories’ Automated Planet Finder (APF). These along with other efforts have added to the total of nearly 2,000 confirmed exoplanet discoveries since 1992.

Many of these exoplanets are super-Earths like Kepler-452b. A planet is generally considered a super-Earth when it has a mass between that of our own planet Earth and about 10 Earth masses. It was originally theorized that a planet with a mass greater than 10 times the mass of Earth would have to be a gas giant like Neptune or Jupiter. However, that idea was called into question earlier in 2015 with the discovery of evidence that Kepler-10c—an exoplanet with a mass 17 times that of Earth—was likely composed of solid rock. Although it is roughly equal to Neptune’s mass, Kepler-10c is only a little more than twice the diameter of Earth. A new name was coined for this much larger rocky planetary configuration, a “mega-Earth.”

Further study of super-Earths and the larger mega-Earths is considered the best opportunity for finding planets in other solar systems with the potential to sustain life. They are easier to detect due to their larger size in relation to Earth, but not so large that they fall into the massive gas giant category. Astronomers, Astrophysicists, and Cosmologists hope that the discoveries of super-Earths or even mega-Earths within habitable zones of their stars will lead to the discovery of planets that support life outside our own solar system.

The search for these potentially life-sustaining exoplanets is ramping up. A partnership that includes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (SAO) and NASA are planning to launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in 2017 with the expectation of cataloguing 3,000 exoplanets. About 500 of these are likely to be super-Earths. In 2018 NASA together with the European Space Agency (ESA), and Canadian Space Agency (CSA) are planning to launch the multi-billion dollar James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) with advanced spectroscopy equipment intended to study multiple facets of the universe. Functioning as an observatory available to thousands of scientists worldwide, the JWST is projected to collect detailed information about the atmospheres of super-Earths.

Much of this incredible scientific effort is directed at answering some fundamental questions: What is the origin of life in the universe? How did the earth and its inhabitants come to be in the state that we find it in now? Is there anyone like us outside the bounds of our solar system?

Numerous programs that support the search for exoplanets believe that the answers to these questions can be found by looking to the stars. For example, Harvard University’s Origins of Life Initiative website makes the following statements—“We seek to understand how the initial conditions on planets, including our own Earth and planets around other stars, dictated the origins of life . . .” and “it will eventually be possible to study the atmospheres of far distant planets for signs of life, including planets that might be Earth twins.” As another example, the mission of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) is to “explore, understand, and explain the nature of life in the universe.” The SETI website explains their outreach programs—“share the excitement of searching for life in the universe with people of all ages. Many folk are curious about our place in the universe: are we alone in the vast ocean of stars and galaxies?”

By continuing to search the stars for exoplanets, super-Earths and mega-Earths we are sure to discover many incredible and awe-inspiring things. But for questions about the origin of life, human existence, and the purpose of the earth and beyond, we can look to a source much closer that is readily available to all of us. That source of vast knowledge is the Bible.

Consider a couple of passages from this mega-book:

“This is what the Lord says—the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Concerning things to come, do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands? It is I who made the earth and created mankind upon it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts” (Isaiah 45:11–12, New International Version).

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands;” (Psalm 8:3–6a NIV).

Perhaps we have been using this mega-book and our interstellar observations at cross purposes. “Both sets of eyes, the revelation of Scripture as well as the tools of observation, are concerned with the same universe,” says Vision’s Dan Cloer in “Let There Be Dark.” Yet, one of them is often left out of the equation. How might considering these two sources of information together rather than separately alter one’s perspective—and one’s life, by extension?

T. Brandon Sexton

 

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Tags: science and religion, space exploration, science and the bible