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Posted at 4:45 PM ET, 02/ 3/2011

Kepler 10-b? I thought I was an only planet!

By Alexandra Petri

agencefrancepressviaphoto.jpgA rendering of rocky planet Kepler 10-b. (Agence France-Presse via NASA)

I don't know if the Kepler Project is out to make us feel like a small, insignificant speck, but it's doing a good job.

I used to look up into the night sky and feel like a small insignificant speck, but this was just a vague feeling backed up by no data to speak of, like intelligent design/the sense that "Never Say Never 3D" will revolutionize moviemaking as we know it/the idea that the world will end in 2012.

Now I know for a fact that there are more than 1,000 exoplanets - or I will after they verify them, at any rate--and, what's more, that more than 50 of them might be habitable!

This is one of those announcements that vitally rattles you in your place in the universe, like learning that there is more than one other person on earth who can recite "The Empire Strikes Back" in its entirety. You get a bit jostled.

Suddenly, there are thousands more of you. You are dispensable. Not only are you not the only one, but you're not even the coolest one. It's like going from being Miss Universe to being Miss Arizona.

The Kepler team has discovered these planets using something my friend Elizabeth describes as the groundhog method - you sit there staring at stars using highly precise instruments, and if you see a shadow, you get another planet. And the descriptions of these planets are so exciting! They have tiny masses, with dense cores and marshmallow-like crusts. Some of them look eerily like Jupiter.

I have to admit: I am endlessly fascinated by announcements of new planets appearing on the scene, like debutantes. And the objections people raise to them are similar. "That one's hot," people say. "Maybe too hot to be stable." "That one is icy and distant," people say. "That one is a gas giant."

Sometimes I think all I ever do is write enthusiastic puff pieces for new planets. [Suggested Editor's Note: That's true, Alex.] This doesn't do much toward making me feel less like an insignificant speck, but I console myself with the thought that in 500 years or so, I will have carved out a useful niche, and they will put my cryogenically frozen head in a place of honor on Gliese 581 G.

Still, 54 of them? Kepler, I think you're moving too fast. I want it to be special. How special can it be when there are 53 others involved? (I'm sure this is how Hugh Hefner feels a lot.)

And what if they do contain life? Stephen Hawking has always maintained that, if there is life out there, we should avoid it as much as possible, because in all probability it is smarter than we are. This is not difficult to believe. After all, we are the planet who has popularized the Snuggie, a "blanket with sleeves," and yesterday we all got together to ask a furry rodent if it was going to be spring soon. So the bar is not high.

But can I put out a request to Kepler?

Please, no more habitable planets! Don't lure us into a false sense of security with the notion that somewhere else out there, there might be a nice place to live in a good school district not too close to a terrifying red dwarf.

It's like when you have children. You know you should put all your love and effort into each one, but secretly at the back of your mind you know that you have two or three more in reserve, in case you foul up. I assume this is what having kids is like. I'm an only child. Just like I thought Earth was.

Now I'm worried.

By Alexandra Petri  | February 3, 2011; 4:45 PM ET
Categories:  Big Deals, Petri, That's awkward  | Tags:  NASA, science, space  
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Comments

They are just prototypes of Earth. You know, : "Practice makes perfect". Well .... except for the earthquakes, floods, storms, blizzards, GOP gains in the House and other 'cosmic' news phenomona.
Then too, lets not forget the snooker ball break back at "Big Bang" central. Still though .... it's better than a rerack in 2012 ..... I think. .... Just remember. Winning the Super Bowl is more important than life itself and you'll be fine.

Posted by: deepthroat21 | February 3, 2011 9:46 PM | Report abuse

We were never totally sure about exoplanets until now.. since we can't see them with the un-aided eye at night. But what we can see are the trillions and trillions of stars that are visible with the eye as well as the various telescopes we have. And that is still only a drop in the bucket. So if stars are that common, I think planets are too. The physics and chemistry of star formation are the same throughout the universe and stars aggregate together the rock and dust that planets are built from... so the Universe could indeed be a very crowded place..

Posted by: hchattaway1 | February 4, 2011 1:56 PM | Report abuse

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