May 2, 2013 | Posted By John Kaplan, PhD

During a week in which there were a series of tragic events I have selected to write about a scientific discovery that caught my interest.  This news story described the findings published in Science Magazine by a consortium of planetary scientists announcing the discovery of a planetary system of five planets orbiting the star designated Kepler-62. Kepler-62 is 1,200 light years away from Earth, a considerable distance. This discovery follows on the heels of a recent report in the Astrophysical Journal of a similar planetary system orbiting Kepler-69, an earth-sized star 2,700 light years from Earth. I find this to be really fascinating stuff. What makes this so fascinating is that these planetary systems include multiple planets in so-called “habitable zone”, a region appropriate in distance from the corresponding star which would permit water to exist in liquid form. 

You might ask why I would write about this in a bioethics blog. How is this possibly related to bioethics? The answer, to me, is that these planets may meet the criteria to support life. Indeed they may meet the conditions to support life as we know it. Thus I am suggesting that our conceptualization of the existence of life on these planets, the impact of such conceptualization upon us, and our ability to relate to the possibility of life in our universe beyond Earth puts this adequately within the realm of bioethics to fit in this blog. 

These planets are the smallest planets ever found in the habitable zone being a bit less than twice the size of Earth. Most of the planets which have been found to orbit distant stars are made of liquid and frozen gases as are Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in our own solar system. Smaller earth-sized planets are much more likely to be made of rock as are Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. So add liquid water to a rocky planet and we find the conditions are starting to look like those we are familiar with. Moreover, these planets being a bit larger than Earth have adequate gravitational force to keep the water from evaporating into space as many believe has occurred on Mars, another rocky planet in the habitable zone.

These discoveries coupled with previous discoveries of habitable zone planets means the special conditions that allowed us and our Earth to evolve as we have are not so unique as we may have thought. While we are certainly special to us we may not be so unusual to the universe. This provides something to ponder after a week of unpleasant news here on Earth.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.
1 comments | Topics: Astrobioethics


Athene Aberdeen

Athene Aberdeen wrote on 05/03/13 7:21 AM

Thank you John Kaplan. This is truly an article that spells hope to all of us who worry about earth and its future. Other generation of course may have the opportunity to live in one of those new planets and, my hope is they will be a wiser people and avoid the errors we have made in this blessed planet we had been given.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.