Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Information Sharing in the Search for Exoplanets

Scientists working on the Kepler Space Telescope team were scheduled to release a new list of candidate exoplanetary systems today. But for now, they will be withholding a significant portion of that data, to be kept for their own analysis (the team cites scheduling issues and logistics for the delayed release). The New York Times asks, who owns the data in the search for exoplanets?

There is an inherent tension between the competitive side of discovery and the need for cooperation and information sharing in the scientific world. And in this case, there are questions of fairness (to the project team and to astronomers at large), and transparency: how much information does the public have a right to access, if the mission is financed with tax dollars? And when should the information be made available?

The internet has made information sharing much easier in the last several years, and the cooperation between NASA scientists and astronomers at large has been a great development. Amateur astronomers have been able to alert NASA to events in the sky -- impacts on Jupiter, for instance -- so that the big telescopes can take a look. And now "citizen scientists" across the world are helping to analyze images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter at Moon Zoo.

In any case, the search for exoplanets (especially Earth-like ones) is probably one of the hottest races in astronomy right now, so it's understandable that everyone wants a piece of the action. But a controlled dissemination of the data could be wise, so long as the focus is on efficiency, not exclusivity.

Pictured here, the first direct photograph (false-colored) of an exoplanet with its star. Credit: European Southern Observatory.

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