Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Selling Stellar Seismology

After the successful launch of the French COROT satellite from Kazakhstan, news reports from around the world described the new space telescope as a "planet-seeker" designed to "search for new Earths". These headlines may have surprised some of the European scientists who plan to use observations from COROT to study the interiors of distant stars -- a technique known as asteroseismology. Beyond the headlines, only about 1 in 10 articles even mentioned that COROT would also "probe the mysteries of stellar interiors".

The COROT website features both scientific objectives prominently. In fact, the name COROT is an acronym for "COnvection ROtation and planetary Transits". If you think using only the T from "planetary Transits" is a bit of a cheat, you're right. The mission was originally given its name when it was only designed to do asteroseismology (studying COnvection and ROTation in stars similar to our Sun). Mission scientists added the planet-hunting capability later, since it exploited the same type of observations and attracted political support from a broader cross-section of the scientific community.

The fact that planet-hunting garners more support than asteroseismology is a reflection of its greater appeal among the general public. It also helps explain why the media chose to focus on the search for distant worlds rather than the more abstract goal of probing stellar interiors. About 2 years from now, NASA will launch a slightly larger telescope called Kepler, which is also designed to do both asteroseismology and planet-hunting. Unless stellar seismologists become a bit more media savvy in the meantime, you can count on more headlines about the search for distant Earths.

1 comment:

Iustin said...

Hi,

I was a reader of the old starstuff.org, and I miss it. So I am very glad to hear you'll write!

Thanks,
Iustin