HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA, CANADA — Less than a decade ago, there was no proof of planets orbiting any star other than our own sun. (No proof on Earth, anyway.) Today, there are more than 50 extrasolar worlds catalogued, and things are just getting started. NASA's new Planet Quest site tracks fresh discoveries, explains detection techniques, and describes future missions as the universe starts to get just a little more crowded.
As with most NASA sites, Planet Quest presents the easily sidetracked reader with a target-rich environment. Above the site's logo are links to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and its homepages for Earth, Solar System, Stars & Galaxies, and Technology developments. Below the logo are links to Planet Quest News, a "professional area" for Engineers and Scientists, and a link to the agency's Origins Program (not quite "Life, the universe and everything" - but close). And all this is before even getting as far as the site's index.
(You could spend days - if not weeks - simply following one NASA link after another, never leaving the agency's Web territory, and finding quality sites almost every step of the way. The only potential disadvantage of this abundance is that it's so easy to get distracted from the original purpose of your visit - and almost as easy to lose your way back to a page you planned to check out more thoroughly. If you do find yourself 'surfing NASA,' I would suggest at least temporarily bookmarking any potentially interesting pages you find before taking off on the next tangent.)
But back to the site at hand. With breaking news in the center, and Mission home pages on the right, the first option on the Planet Quest Index presents visitors with a Flash-based (HTML also available) Overview of NASA's 15-year mission to "find and characterize new worlds." Science touches on the origins of the stars and planets themselves, history's past speculations about their existence, and the techniques used to detect unseen planets -or evidence of life- from trillions of miles away.
A Flash interactive, "4 Ways to Find a Planet," while clearly drawn to entertain and educate younger viewers, effectively illustrates how simple the theory - if not the execution - is behind each detection method, and thus alleviates a bit of the doubt that sometimes accompanies declarations based on 'a bunch of scientific mumbo jumbo.' (The same sort of misgivings that arise when a paleontologist seems able to recreate a 50-ton dinosaur - complete with information about its diet, life span and hobbies - from four rib bones, two bicuspids and a toenail.)
Technology looks at methods used to put the theories into practice, after which the four Missions NASA has planned for its planet-search are introduced: The Keck Interferometer, StarLight, The Space Interferometry Mission, and the Terrestrial Planet Finder. The New World Atlas keeps a running tally of extrasolar planets discovered to date, Educator resources and Web Showcase make some site recommendations, and if you're really keen on keeping up with the latest developments, the soon to be launched Planet Finder Club offers news alerts, project updates and "opportunities for direct involvement."
Not surprisingly, the site has its fair share of multimedia enhancements (such as a QuickTime panoramic virtual tour of the Keck Observatory) and gee-whiz facts (trying to observe a planet orbiting the nearest star would be analogous to standing in Boston and looking for a moth near a spotlight in San Diego). It may not be planetary exploration the way the folks on Star Trek's Enterprise do it, but for the moment, Planet Quest is as close as we'll get.
Planet Quest can be found at http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/.