“The Exoplanet Next Door:” UCR’s Dr. Stephen Kane featured in Scientific American

The February issue of the Scientific American, a popular American science magazine,  featured an article titled, “The Exoplanet Next Door,” co-authored by Dr. Stephen Kane, an associate professor of planetary astrophysics and an exoplanet researcher at UCR. The article explains Kane’s comparison of Venus and Earth in terms of their development, and why “we have never had better reasons to send a new major mission to the oft-ignored second planet from the sun.”

In an interview with The Highlander, Kane explained why we should land on Venus and the motivations behind his career, which focuses on the detection and evaluation of exoplanets and their habitability. Kane ponders the future of his expanding field, and attributes its growth to an increase in specificity and the new emphasis on interdisciplinary research.

Kane expounded upon his interest towards researching the planet, stating that “when it comes to Venus we know very little … we’ve only sent a few landers to the surface and we don’t have good models for the atmosphere.” He goes on to say that “if we had never sent any landers at all to the surface of Venus—and it’s right next door to us—then we’d be completely wrong in our inferences about what the surface conditions are like. This should be a big warning to us when we’re trying to infer the surface conditions of exoplanets.”

Kane believes that expanding our understanding of Venus has far-reaching implications: “I sometimes refer to Venus as a preview into the history of not just Earth’s future, but every habitable planet will eventually end up like Venus … once it loses its liquid water the carbon cycle will break.” To Kane, Venus is “a perfect, ideal case where we can test a lot of our theories, develop new models … in a way we just can’t get anywhere else.”

Addressing popular interest in Mars, Kane stated that “Mars is our best chance of finding direct evidence … of past liquid water on the surface. However,” he continued, “for outside the solar system, Venus is far more important than Mars. The reason for that is because whenever we look for planets around a star the focus will always be … on earth sized planets. This means that we should be looking at cases like Venus where it could have been habitable.”

Kane affirmed that exoplanet studies must be well-calculated, because even with Mars we still don’t know much: “We know very little about the size of the core of Mars; we’ve thrown billions of dollars worth of spacecraft and landers and rovers and we still don’t know what the interior is like. How could we do this for an exoplanet? We can’t.”

Kane grew up with a fascination with space that has stuck with him through the years, as his office prominently features Star Wars models alongside figures of the very spacecraft he was involved in developing, including NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Kane said that his interests were initiated in his childhood: “I grew up in outback Australia … way out where we had extraordinary views of the sky, it was beautiful. When I was 12, I went to a planetarium that got me really interested … then during the late 1980s there was a spacecraft called Voyager II … we’d never seen pictures of planets like these before, that’s when I realized ‘this is awesome, this is what I want to do.’”

Kane stated the he is now looking to “be able to as accurately as possible infer the surface conditions of exoplanets and it’s pretty obvious to me that the pathway to do that is to be able to understand it for an extreme case, like Venus, because if we can understand a complex atmosphere like Venus has, all the way down to the surface, and if we could deploy something like InSight or a seismograph mission to Venus … we could have two data points instead of the one that we have (earth).”

Kane said that the search for exoplanets is growing fast and “one of the ways that you can see growth in the exoplanet field is how topical the meetings have become … one other way in which its growing right now is to bridge this gap to other disciplines. We’re seeing a lot more astrobiology meetings or meetings that try to connect exoplanet folks with planetary science, and not just planetary science but geophysicists, climate scientists, people who may be able to provide a lot of their expertise.”

Concluding with words of advice for rising scholars, Kane advises an interdisciplinary mindset: “My advice to people who are thinking about this is to keep an open mind about opportunities and synergies of disciplines that could contribute.”

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