July 2015 has been a fantastic month for amateur astronomers and astronomical scientists alike! We saw Jupiter and Mars 'cross paths' (doubly exciting through my telescope!), we saw our first up close and personal images of Pluto, and the Kepler orbiting scacecraft discovery of Kepler 452b, an earth-like planet in an alien solar system. In this excitement, I kept hearing one recurring statement from others, both in person and online, paraphrased as "Didn't we have high definition pictures of Pluto already?" This made me think of a topic that I have long thought about. Does the artistic representation of a scientific study take away from the scientific achievement of observation?
Above, we see a picture of of Pluto to the best of human ability prior to New Horizon, as well as an artistic representation of Pluto just prior to New Horizon. I think that the reason for using artistic representation of scientific discoveries is fairly clear; when communicating a discovery to the general population, it is important for their to be a visual hook so that people can remember and understand it. It also presents a working hypothesis of our understanding and interpretation from the available data of a particular celestial object . However, these artistic representations give the false assumption that we have the capability of capturing the images. The true images of Pluto captured by New Horizons (below, click each picture) show a much different picture of Pluto. These images are truly breathtaking and I am beyond thrilled to experience new images of an alien world (I am a bit too young to have experienced this event with Neptune and other outer-solar system planets from the Voyager missions).
This brings me to Kepler 254b (Earth 2.0). The Kepler orbiting spacecraft finds planets in alien solar systems by detecting a slight periodic dimming in light around stars in our galaxy. A great visual about how it works can be found here. Granted, using an image of a slightly dimmed star as the visual hook might not be as impactful to others as the image below used in news articles about the finding. While this image puts more emphasis on the current Kepler mission for finding earth-like planets outside of our solar system, it also gives us the impression that this is, in fact, what the planet looks like. If we have the capability to capture images of Kepler 452b, surely we have the ability to take pictures of Pluto from observatories. The danger is that we forget how expensive and hard it is to actually take high quality images and measurements of celestial body (especially since there was a good chance we might have missed these images of Pluto all together).
Aside: It also serves as a historical snapshot of our understanding of a celestial object. Knowing the history of our scientific assumptions are almost as important as knowing the true data, since this is literally what science does (hypothesis testing). For instance, books like the Barsoom series (protagonist John Carter) provided a narrative around our scientific understanding at the time of Mars circa 1911. At the time, people thought that it was quite possible that life might be living on the surface of Mars and it was acceptable to think there was a breathable atmosphere of Oxygen.
The Kepler mission is important and exciting and will continue to find Earth-like planets. But at the same time, lets not forget the difficulty of celestial discoveries and observations. Scientific observations of space and the mysterious 'stuff' in it require brilliant people to both design and build the required instruments, as well as equally brilliant people to interpret and develop new scientific theory based on these observations. Astronomical observation is hard and mysterious. And that's why its fascinating.