Scientists have discovered nearly 3,500 planets that circle a star other than our sun. And, yet, something about the announcement of seven new exoplanets this week seemed to have struck a chord with millions of people in ways the previous thousands did not. Even my colleague’s six-year-old daughter Elizabeth caught the buzz, “going nuts over Trappist-1,” the star at the center of these new exoplanets.
Elizabeth has good reason for her excitement. Trappist-1 is an ultra-cool dwarf star, one of the most common types of star in our galaxy. Finding Earth-like planets around one of these stars means we likely have billions of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone. And with every exoplanet we discover, the probability that we’re alone in the universe goes down.
But to many detractors, this sort of space research is a waste of taxpayers’ money. Knowing there are Earth-like planets some 39 light years away, a distance we’re unlikely to cross any time soon, does not in any way alleviate the many terrestrial problems we face today. That argument gets even stronger when serious money is spent on space by a country like India, which launched a successful mission to Mars, but still has hundreds of millions suffering in poverty.
It’s hard to put a number on the return on investment in space research, but experts agree that benefits far outweigh costs. If that’s not convincing, consider the immeasurable impact space discoveries have on humanity. Helen Maynard-Casely, an astrophysicist in Australia, became the first person in her family to go to university, because as a seven-year-old she was inspired by Helen Sharman, the first Briton to go to space. For all we know, Trappist-1 might similarly inspire Elizabeth and others like her.
In times when science is under attack from some of the most powerful people on Earth, it’s doubly important to tell the stories of what scientists have done and can do for the benefit of humankind. If nothing else, even simply sparking imagination that takes us away, albeit briefly, from our terrestrial worries is surely worth a tiny fraction of public money.
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