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A new planet discovered with a relatively
new technique raises hopes for more to come.
(Updated June 15, 2005)

The report this morning that a new earth-like planet has been found circling a dwarf star fifteen light years away from us is being hailed as a giant leap forward in planet-hunting.

A thorough overview in lay language appears in Astrobiology Magazine. While scientists are finding planets, sometimes it seems almost daily, they are not finding an abundance of earth-like ones. Most are gas giants such as Jupiter. The small, rocky planet announced today is closer to earth-like, but it’s scorching hot, according to a BBC report, because it’s much closer to its star than earth.

Today’s results
are an important
step toward
answering one
of the most
profound questions
that mankind (sic)
can ask: Are
we alone in
the universe?
–Michael Turner

The breakthrough in this discovery, as I understand it, is two-fold: 1. it results from ground-based observation; and 2. it was discovered through a fascinating measurement technique of the planet’s gravitational “wobble” as it rotates around its star. It took eight years and new hardware to complete the observation.

Michael Turner, head of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation told the Christian Science Monitor, “Today’s results are an important step toward answering one of the most profound questions that mankind (sic) can ask: Are we alone in the universe?”

Asking this raises a long-standing question, namely how theology and cosmology intersect. I’m wondering who is doing cosmology along with theology, if anyone? John Cobb has written on the subject and some process theologians have ventured into this territory. The Vatican has an astronomer. But I’m not sure if other theologians are working in this area. (This may be my own lack of knowledge.)

We’re at the earliest beginnings of this kind of exploration and we’re at a threshold of new thought. As techniques are refined, and observation and detection become even more sophisticated, we will be faced with new understanding of our place in the universe.

The current estimate is that at least fifty of the one hundred known planets could sustain life, and space telescopes will be positioned within fifteen years to investigate. We’re inching toward that time when life out there is no longer science fiction. And this raises yet another significant question: How will life on other planets affect our faith here on earth?

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