The discovery of yet another exoplanet by NASA's Kepler spacecraft has once again opened the debate about the value of space exploration.
The discovery of this planet, named Kepler-22b, is particularly exciting because it appears to orbit within its star's habitable zone, with a surface temperature of around 70°. This means that it is very likely to have liquid water, and where there's water, astrobiologists hope that there's life.
But with every big discovery in space exploration, there seems to be a backlash about the value of all the money spent on a seemingly impractical endeavor.
In fact, nothing could be more important, more valuable, and more human than studying and exploring our surroundings, terrestrial and beyond. Space exploration instills us with curiosity, inspiring the masses and filling us with awe. Countless technologies are created in the process of developing the means of exploring the cosmos, and perhaps most importantly, the future of energy lies not on Earth, but in space.
When we understand our place in the cosmos — on a tiny rock orbiting an ordinary star on the edge of a typical spiral galaxy, which is just one galaxy among billions which comprise the observable universe — we are given a sense of perspective. When the first images of Earth were seen from the Apollo missions, our planet suddenly became much smaller and more fragile. The space race gave us a global perspective, allowing the optimists and pacifists among us to realize that we're in this together and that global nuclear war would be catastrophic to the planet and species. The space race of the Cold War also fueled the impressive growth of science and technology in what some call the golden age of education, inspiring countless numbers of children and young adults to pursue careers as engineers, researchers, and scientists.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, what message is the nation sending to our children about what we prioritize? I fear that we are replacing the inspirational images of the moon, the stars, and the cosmos with painful pictures (as well as high-definition video and best-selling videogames) of warfare. Based on what Americans prioritize through their federal budgets, what careers are kids inspired to pursue?
We are nearing the point where the reality of our technologies is reaching the suggestions of science fiction, with the harvesting of energy from extraterrestrial sources becoming a very real possibility. Half a century ago, the idea seemed outlandish and speculative, confined to the fictional musings of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. But in 2011, the possibility of solar stations orbiting the Earth — efficiently collecting the direct energy of the Sun and then transmitting it to Earth — is feasible well within our lifetimes. And although the economics don't quite make sense just yet, mining the moons and asteroids of our solar system is another very real possibility in the not too distant future. If it's true that humans go to war because of our habitats' limited carrying capacities, could our propensity for violence be slightly tempered by a vast expansion of the reach of our resources?
All of the life on our planet owes the sun for its existence, and many of the heavy elements on Earth were originally deposited here by the rain of asteroids. As such, it seems fitting to extend our reach ever further into space, getting back to basics, so to speak, in tapping into the most primordial sources of our energy and minerals. There's no better way to extend humanity's reach than to continue the exploration that began on the plains, spanned the globe, and now reaches to the stars.