We ‘Hype’ Alien World Findings Amid Little Data, Exoplanet Scientist Says

by Elizabeth Howell on February 20, 2014

An exoplanet transiting across the face of its star, demonstrating one of the methods used to find planets beyond our solar system. Credit: ESA/C. Carreau

An exoplanet transiting across the face of its star, demonstrating one of the methods used to find planets beyond our solar system. Credit: ESA/C. Carreau

With exoplanet discoveries coming at us several times a month, finding these worlds is a hot field of research. Once the planets are found and confirmed, however, there’s a lot more that has to be done to understand them. What are they made of? How habitable are they? What are their atmospheres like? These are questions we are only beginning to understand.

One long-standing exoplanet researcher argues that we don’t know very much about about alien planet atmospheres, as an example. Princeton University’s Adam Burrows says that not only is our understanding at an infancy, but the media and scientists overhype information based on very little data.

“Exoplanet research is in a period of productive fermentation that implies we’re doing something new that will indeed mature,” Burrows stated in a story posted on Princeton Journal Watch. “Our observations just aren’t yet of a quality that is good enough to draw the conclusions we want to draw.”

Artist's conception of HD 189733 b, which may have winds that blow up to 22,000 mph (35,000 km/h). Credit: NASA

Artist’s conception of HD 189733 b, which may have winds that blow up to 22,000 mph (35,000 km/h). Credit: NASA

Burrow’s skepticism comes from how information on exoplanet atmospheres is collected. That uses a method called low-resolution photometry, which shows changes in light and radiation emitted from an object such as a planet. This could be affected by things such as a planet’s rotation and cloud cover.

Burrows’ solution is to use spectrometry, which can glean physical information through looking at light spectra, but that would be a challenge given the existing exoplanet-seeking infrastructure in space and on Earth uses telescopes that generally rely on other methods.

What do you think of his conclusions? Leave your thoughts in the comments. For more information, read the full article in Princeton Journal Watch, the study in Proceedings of the National Academy or the preprint version on Arxiv.

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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