February 22, 2012
Monday marked 50 years since John Glenn became the first human to orbit Earth, likely the turning point in the space race of the 1960s that crescendoed with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon in 1969.
The novelties of the American space program and astronomy are moving farther away. Our ventures into space have allowed deeper and deeper exploration of the universe, and in the 1990s we discovered the first planets outside of our solar system -- called extra-solar planets, or exoplanets.
One of the most recent confirmed discoveries is GJ 1214b, which is almost three times larger than Earth, very hot and watery.
Life as we know it requires water, which is why the scientific community gets all excited every time it is found elsewhere in the universe. This planet is much different from Earth with a surface temperature of about 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
It's hard to imagine life existing at twice the boiling point of water on our home planet. But that's why we look. People thought Earth was flat a few centuries ago, and we're only two decades into knowing that planets exist outside our solar system.
Hopefully our continued discovery of planets will remind people of the extraordinary accomplishments of our space program in the past half-century. We keep sending robotic probes into the solar system and beyond because they're cheaper than humans and can go places we never could. But we'll likely never know about life elsewhere unless we send a person to check it out.
Michael Buckelew is a member of the digital team for SCNI, parent company of the Gwinnett Daily Post.