Scientists have identified more than 2,700 potential planets in Kepler
data so far, with many more expected in the years to come.
(credit: NASA)

A golden age of exoplanet science

by Jeff Foust
Monday, January 14, 2013

“Kepler has transformed the field of exoplanet science,” Batalha said.

The term “golden age” gets thrown around a lot to refer to an era of particular achievement in a field; one common definition of it is as a “period when a specified art, skill, or activity is at its peak.” The term, though, is commonly used in a retrospective fashion, looking back with nostalgia at a better time, regardless if that was really the case. Its use, then is often flavored with a tinge of regret of having missed out on an era of epic accomplishment.

It’s difficult to know when you’re in the midst of a golden age, and perhaps a bit hubristic to declare one exists while it’s still ongoing. Nonetheless, one can make a strong case that we’re in some kind of golden age today for the search for and study of extrasolar planets, or exoplanets. Two decades ago the only confirmed exoplanets orbited a pulsar, and just how common planets were around stars more like our Sun was very much an open question. Today, confirmed exoplanets number in the hundreds, with thousands more waiting to be confirmed.

The vibrancy of this field of astronomy was evident at the 221st Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), held in Long Beach, California, last week. The meeting was full of sessions, plenary talks, and press conferences associated with exoplanet studies, from the latest discoveries of new planets to efforts to try and characterize the ones already found and also better understand how frequent such planets—particularly those like the Earth—are around other stars.

The wealth of findings at the conference caused even veteran exoplanet researchers to gush. “It’s been an extraordinary AAS meeting already for those of you interested in exoplanets,” said Geoff Marcy at beginning of a talk a day and a half into the four-day meeting. “The results that have been described by so many speakers already I think have been stunning, actually historic.”

Read more: The Space Review: A golden age of exoplanet science.

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