The brief for speakers at today’s exoplanet workshop at MIT is “be provocative”, and veteran planet-hunter Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, certainly satisfied that with an extraordinary ten minute talk this morning that had one NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory official on his feet trying to respond even before the allotted question time. Marcy’s idea of sending a probe to Alpha Centauri came on the back of a series of scathing policy criticisms targeted at NASA and the US National Academy of Sciences.
“I’m going to describe some of my anger,” Marcy said, and started out by slamming the National Academy’s Astro2010 decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics for the low priority it gave to planet-hunting missions, saying the panel was “disingenuous” when it used the phrase “new worlds” in the title of its report “New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics” when its content did not recomend planet-finding missions that would have found such worlds for real. Marcy’s tone then turned to introspection, as he blamed the exoplanet community including himself for failing to make a unified case that would have compelled the panel to recommend funding of what most of those at the workshop hope to see in their lifetimes; the launch of a space-based Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) mission that would image Earth-like worlds around nearby stars. NASA at one time supported such a mission but postponed it indefinitely in 2007. “I feel like I bear some responsibility for not adequately engaging in discussion,” Marcy said, “very few of us in this room showed leadership to argue for TPF-lite,” a version of TPF that would have been affordable. So what went wrong? Marcy said that different proposals to launch Terrestrial Planet Finder space mission over the next decade undermined each other. “That kind of squabbling lost us 10 years,” he says
Marcy didn’t end there. Next he attacked NASA over the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM), a project that would have found nearby Earth-sized planet by measuring changes in the seismic wobbles of the host stars. SIM was defunded in 2010 after the Astro2010 panel gave it a low priority. Marcy noted that NASA has spent $600 million on mission development between 2000 and 2010 before axing it in the wake of the Astro2010 report. He argued for more transparent mission development that would see several competing proposals funded at low levels, and then downselected to something that the agency remained committed to.
Wes Traub of JPL, who worked on SIM and works on technology development for TPF, which NASA is still supporting at a low level, was the official who tried to jump in right after Marcy’s remarks. But Traub’s apparent aim wasn’t so much to contradict Marcy as to acknowledge what he was saying. He agreed that he had struggled to unite the planet-hunting community behind a unified TPF proposal and he sounded almost choked up as he discussed the defunding of SIM by NASA Headquarters. “It was the most humiliating, embarrassing thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.
David Charbonneau of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who is part of NASA’s Kepler planet-finding team, spoke out in support of Astro2010, saying its decision to pass on planet-finding was a natural consequence of the pitches it received. He says he read all the white papers submitted by the scientific community to the committee and that Marcy was right to say different planet-hunting proposals, including several out of JPL, concentrated too much on attacking each other rather than making a unified case to study exoplanets.
Sara Seager of MIT, who organized the workshop, at one point called a halt to the NASA-bashing. “I didn’t want to start getting into a fight about NASA because NASA has supported everyone in this room,” she said. Seager said the exoplanet community was spearheaded by “rogue pioneers” like Marcy, and doesn’t have a unified sociology.
On the back then of these serious policy criticisms came Marcy’s provocative idea for a mission to Alpha Centauri. He appealed to US President Barack Obama to announce the launch of a probe that would send back pictures of any planets, asteroids and comets in the system in the next few hundred years, with the US partnering with Japan, China, India and Europe to make it happen. “It would jolt NASA back to life,” he declared. Maverick it might sound, but many in the room seemed to take the idea in the spirit of focusing minds on the ultimate goal of planet-hunting; to take humanity’s first steps towards reaching out to life elsewhere in the universe.
Image: Planet-hunter Geoff Marcy / NASA Kepler Mission