Exoplanets and the Search for Life in the Universe: Q&A with author Lee Billings

As far as our understanding of life in the Universe goes, right now, we’re it. But the past decade has brought discoveries of hundreds of planets orbiting other stars, some of which could potentially host life. Fellow science journalist Lee Billings has written a new book about the exciting field of searching for extrasolar planets. Five Billion Years of Solitude (read our review here) takes a look at some of the remarkable scientists and the incredible discoveries being made.

Earlier this week, we talked with Lee about the book and the future of how we might find a mirror of Earth.

Universe Today: What was the impetus behind writing this book – was there a specific event or moment where you said, ‘I want to write about astrobiology and the search for exoplanets,’ or was it a more gradual thing over time, where you were just intrigued by the whole expanding field?

Lee Billings
Lee Billings

Lee Billings: A little bit of both. I was definitely intrigued by the expanding field of searching for exoplanets, but it came all together for me after interviewing astronomer Greg Laughlin from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2007 for an infographic about exoplanets. Near the end of our conversation, he mentioned — rather off the cuff — that if you tracked the smallest exoplanets found year by year and graphed them out over time, the trend-line would indicate that we would find an Earth-sized exoplanet by 2011. And I thought, “Holy crap, that’s just four years away!”

I was struck by the disconnect where we could see this plain-as-day data, but the wider world didn’t realize or appreciate this. It also bothered me that we’d soon be finding potentially habitable other worlds, and yet have great difficulty actually determining if they were habitable or even inhabited. And so there was this observational disconnect too, and a lot of people who didn’t seem to care there was this disconnect.

UT: And now that finding exoplanets has made front page news, are you encouraged by how people from afar are viewing this field?

LB: Yes and no. Exoplanets have been in the news for years now. 10 to 15 years ago when astronomers like Geoff Marcy and Michel Mayor were finding the first exoplanets — honkin’ huge balls of gas orbiting close to their stars — it would make front page news. Right now, there’s kind of been ‘exoplanet fatigue,’ where every couple of days a new exoplanet is being announced and exoplanets are even less in the news now because of this overload. And it’s going to keep happening, and I feel like by 2020 finding an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone isn’t going to make front-page news because it’s going to be happening all the time and people are getting used to it.

UT: Kind of like the Apollo program all over again, where people soon got tired of watching people walk on the Moon?

LB: Yes! Even though I feel like more people in the public are aware of exoplanets being discovered and they even think exoplanets are cool, many think that finding thousands of exoplanets is just like stamp collecting — oh, we found another planet, let’s put it in the book and isn’t that one really pretty — that’s not what this is about. It’s about finding signs of life, finding a sense of context for ourselves in the wider universe, figuring out where Earth and all life upon it fits in this greater picture. I don’t think people are attuned to that side, but are being seduced by the stamp-collecting, horse-race nature of how finding exoplanets are depicted in the media. The emphasis isn’t on what it is going to take to really go out and find out more details about these exoplanets.

Frank Drake and the Drake Equation,
Frank Drake and the Drake Equation,

UT: You had the opportunity to talk with some of the great minds of our time — of course, Frank Drake is just such an icon of SETI and the potential for finding life out there in the Universe. But I think one of the most amazing things in your book that I’d never heard of before comes in one of the first chapters where you’re talking with Frank Drake and his idea for a spacecraft that uses the Sun as a gravitational lens to be able to see distant planets incredible detail. That’s amazing!

LB: If you use the Sun as a gravitational lens as sort of an ultimate telescope is really fascinating. As Drake said in the book, you can get some mind-boggling, insane data if you used the Sun as a gravitational lens, and align that with another gravitational lens in the Alpha Centauri system and you can send a high bandwidth radio signal in between those two stars with just the power of a cell phone. In visible light, you could possibly see things on a nearby exoplanet like night-time lighting, the boundary between land and sea, clouds, and weather patterns. It just boggles the mind.

There are other techniques out there that could in theory deliver these sorts of similar observations, but there’s just kind of a technical sweetness to the notion that the stars themselves could be the ultimate telescopes that we use to explore the universe and understand our place in it. I think that’s kind of a wild, poetic and elegant idea.

UT: Wow, that is so compelling. And speaking of compelling, can you talk about Sara Seager and the time you were able to spend with her, getting to know her and her work? Her story is quite compelling not to mention heartbreaking.

LB: She’s a remarkable woman and a brilliant scientist and I feel deeply privileged and honored to be able to tell her story — and that she shared so many details of her personal story with me. Really, she’s kind of a microcosm of the field at large. She crossed over from what she originally studied — from cosmology to exoplanetolgy — and her career seems to be defined by the refusal to accept that certain things might be impossible. She is always pushing the envelope and just keeps her eyes on the prize, so to speak, of finding smaller more Earth-like planets that could be habitable and finding ways of determining what they are actually like. There’s a parallel there between her path and astronomy at large, where there is tension between parts of the professional community. A lot of astronomy is concerned with studying how the universe began and the ancient, the distant, the dead. Exoplanetology is more concerned with the nearest stars to Earth and the planets — the new, the nearby and the living. I feel like she represents that shift and embodies some of that tension.

There’s also an element of tragedy, where she suffered a significant loss with the death of her husband, and had to find a way to get through it and get stronger coming out on the other side. I see similarities between that and what has happened in the field at large where we’ve seen big federally funded plans for future, next-generation telescopes like the Terrestrial Planet Finder, be scuttled on the rocky reefs of politics — and other things. It’s complicated why that’s happened, but there’s no denying that is HAS happened. 15 years ago we were talking about launching TPS by 2014 and now here we are, almost to 2014 and the James Webb telescope isn’t even launched and its eating up all the money for everything else. And now the notion of doing these big kinds of life-finding missions have fallen by the wayside. There’s been kind of the death of a dream, and the bright future that was forecast for what was going to happen for exoplanets doesn’t seem like it’s going to be. The community has had to respond to that and rebuild from that, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of unity on what the best path forward is.

And also, Sara Seager is walking the line between the old way of big, federally funded projects and a new private, philanthropic path that may or may not be sustainable or successful, but it’s different and trying to do science in a new way. So maybe we don’t need to rely on big government or NASA to do this. Maybe we could ask philanthropists or crowd-funding or new enterprises that could help finance the projects in going forward. She’s got her feet in both worlds and is emblematic of the field right now.

Artistic representations of the only known planets around other stars (exoplanets) with any possibility to support life as we know it. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico, Arecibo.
Artistic representations of the only known planets around other stars (exoplanets) with any possibility to support life as we know it. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico, Arecibo.

UT: Yes, as you mention in the book, there is this tragic possibility that we may never find the things that these scientists are searching for — “mirror Earths, alien life, extraterrestrial intelligence, or a future beyond our lonely, isolated planet.” What do you see as the future of the search for exoplanets, in this age of funding cuts?

LB: What seems to be happening is that astronomers and planet hunters are needing to change their baselines and move their goalposts. In the past when people talked about space telescopes and finding signs of life, they were thinking of directly imaging planets around Sun-like stars and finding indications of life through studying the atmosphere and even surface features. The new way that is coming about and will likely happen in the next few decades, is an emphasis on smaller, cooler, less sun-like stars — the Red Dwarf or M-Dwarf stars. And it won’t be about directly imaging planets, but looking at transiting planets because it is easier to look at planets around lower-mass stars and at super-Earths that are easier to find and study. But these are rather alien places and we don’t know much about them, so it’s an exciting frontier.

But while transits are jackpots — in that you get all sorts of information like period, mass, radius, density and measures of the planet’s upper atmosphere — transits are very rare. If you think about the nearest thousand stars and if we are just looking for transits, that sort of search will only yield a fraction of the planets and the planetary diversity that exist. If you’re looking for life and potentially habitable planets, we really need a bigger sample and more than just transits to fill out the census of planets orbiting the stars around us.

I think missions like TESS and James Webb are going to be important, but I don’t think it will be enough. It will only leave us on the cusp of answering these bigger questions. I hope I’m wrong and that the emphasis on M-dwarfs and super-Earths and transits will be far more productive and surprising than anyone could have imagined or that there will be technology developed that are orders of magnitude cheaper, more affordable and better than these big telescopes.

But to answer the big questions more robustly in a way that is more satisfying to the public and data-hungry scientists, we’re probably going to have to make big investments, and invest the blood sweat and tears into building one of these big space telescopes. People in the astronomy community have been kicking and screaming about this because they realize the money just isn’t there.

But as someone once told me, there an economic inevitability to this in terms of how much the public can be engaged by these questions and how much they might hunger and thirst for finding other planets and life beyond our solar system. I feel like there is a strong push that could be made. I feel that the public would offer more support for these types of investments rather than for other projects, such as a a big space-based gravitational wave observatory or a big telescope devoted to studying dark energy.

Of course, we are living in this era of constrained and falling budgets, it’s going to be a really hard sell for any of these investments in astronomy, but pursuing the ancient, distant and dead instead of the new, nearby and living is probably a losing proposition, I do I wish astronomers the best of luck, but I hope they make the smart choice to prioritize the most publicly engaging science.

Artist's impression of the transiting exoplanet HAT-P-7b. Credit: NASA/ESA
Artist’s impression of the transiting exoplanet HAT-P-7b. Credit: NASA/ESA

UT: You write about the competition and sometimes the disdain that competing astronomers have for each other. Is this competition good, or should there be more unity in the field?

LB: In the interest of the community at large, I’d have to say unity is better and that some people have to wait their turn or reduce their expectations. I’m biased; I’m an advocate of exoplanet missions and these investments. But this is publicly funded science and I think it’s important for the community to be unified because it’s all too easy for the bean-counters in Washington to hear the discordant cacophony coming from the various astronomer hatchlings in the nest, and that there is no consensus except they are hungry and they want more.

They need to be unified to withstand the anti-scientific trends in funding we are seeing in our federal government right now. On the other hand, competition is important. But when you are doing publicly funded science, the scientists need to do a good job of making their case of why they should be funded.

UT: What was the most memorable experience in writing this book?

LB: That’s a really hard question! One of my great privileges and joys of writing the book was having access to these scientists and their work. But one of the most memorable things was visiting California’s Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton in 2012 for the Transit of Venus. It was the last transit of Venus in our lifetime and it was amazing to stand there and think that the last time the transit was visible from Mount Hamilton was a century before, and realize all the changes that had happened in astronomy since then. This transit happened slowly over hours and it was amazing to stand there and realize, this is the last time in your life you’re going to see it and to wonder what is going to happen in the intervening years until this event occurs again.

But Lick Observatory was an appropriate place to be since that’s where some of the first exoplanets were found. When the last Transit of Venus took place, we hadn’t walked on the Moon, there were no computers, and we’ve had all these great discoveries in astronomy. I was thinking about what the world will be like in another hundred years or so, and thinking how while that is a long time for us, in the scale of planetary time, it is nothing at all! The Sun won’t have significantly aged and Venus will likely look exactly the same in 2117 for the next transit, but I would guess the Earth will be very different then. It’s kind of indicative of this transitional era we’re in. It was a very poignant moment for me.

UT: It’s similar to how Frank Drake talked about how he and his colleagues thought that searching for radio emissions from other civilizations would be so important in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, but realizing that Earth’s radio emissions from our technology is waning and only lasted a short period of time.

LB: Yeah, perhaps when people look back at my book in the future, they might say, ‘wow, this guy was so blinkered and stupid — he didn’t see this technologies X, Y and Z coming and didn’t see monumental discoveries A, B, and C coming.’ I kind of hope that’s actually the case, because it will mean the search for extraterrestrial life and intelligence will have surpassed my wildest dreams. However, I didn’t try to predict what was going to happen, but just wanted to capture this strange and seemingly unique moment in time in which we are poised on the threshold of these immense discoveries that could totally transform our conception of the Universe and our place in it.

UT: Talking to you today, we can obviously tell how passionate you are about this subject and you were the perfect person to write about it!

LB: Thanks, Nancy!