Human beings are a lonely species; we feel our unique place in the cosmos. To diminish this we leap gleefully at any shared behavioural or brain capacities with everything from dolphins to chimps. If we could find some common ground with shrimp, other than swarming in huge numbers, weâ€™d be happy. Standing at the apex of what we perceive to be the evolutionary tree is both a privilege and a burden; itâ€™s lonely at the top. While finding similarities with other species does something to mollify our collective aching heart the real psychic release will come when we find life on other planets; an â€œalien earthâ€. We have yet to find a true twin for Earth but if there is a planet out there that is habitable then that changes the shape of the psychic universe we inhabit. According to NASA researchers it is highly likely that we will find that planet in 2012.
An extrasolar planet, or exoplanet, is a planet found outside our solar system. As of December 22 2011 a total of 716 exoplanets had been identified. However, it is estimated that half of all sun-like stars will have planets orbiting them which means that there must be millions of planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Since 2009 the American space Kepler mission has been searching portions of our region of the Milky Way to discover Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets. The Kepler telescopeâ€™s only instrument is a photometre that continually monitors the brightness of over 145 000 stars. This data is transmitted to Earth, then analysed to discover periodic dimming caused by exoplanets that cross in front of their host star.
On December 5 2011 Kepler scientists announced the discovery of 1094 new potential exoplanets bringing the total tally to 2326 for this mission. Thus far only 33 of these have been proven to be real, but that does not mean the others are not real, just that they are not yet proven by backup observations. Estimates are that about 80 per cent of the possible exoplanets will prove to be genuine. The numbers are exciting but so is the diversity of what is being found.
In December 2011 Kepler scientists announced the discovery of two exoplanets at just the right distance from their suns where water and life as we know it could exist. In September 2011 they found a planet circling two suns. One planet has been found to be as light and airy as styrofoam while another is as dense as iron. So far none of the planets found in their starâ€™s habitable zone can be considered an â€œalien Earthâ€ because they are significantly larger than humanityâ€™s home planet. That might change in 2012.
Kepler works by looking for dips in a starâ€™s brightness that are caused when a planet passes in front of the star. Three such dips, or transits, need to be witnessed to suggest a potential planet. So the longer Kepler operates the more chance of it finding a true earth twin. As Kepler enters its third year of operation smaller planets with longer orbital periods are likely to be found. In June-July 2012 the Kepler researchers will announce their next batch of planetary candidates and expectations are that if an earth twin is not in this batch then one will be found relatively soon.
So 2012 could be a big year for humanity. Of course, there is a lot of apocalyptic talk about the Mayan prophecies related to 21 December 2012. If you want a full (and non-doom laden) explanation of these prophecies check out the WellBeing magazine October 2011 issue. In brief though, the Mayan calendar was based on cycles of 5125 years duration. A cycle ends on 21 December 2012 and at this time a change in consciousness is predicted to occur, and a potential Golden Age could begin. Finding another habitable planet, capable of sustaining of life, could be a turning point for that shift.
We must prepare ourselves however, since if we do find intelligent life, there is a high probability they probably wonâ€™t have, or be impressed by, plasma screens; so what will we have to talk about?