Cosmic Commodities: How much is a new planet worth?


33 Responses to “Cosmic Commodities: How much is a new planet worth?”

  1. DewiMorgan says:

    Am I right that the first term assumes that the value of anything but the 100 most earthlike planets found by this mission is zero, even though the equation is trying to allocate a value to all planets?

  2. Squid Tamer says:

    Valuing Mars at $14,000 dollars seemed stupid at first, but imagine that we have Star-Wars style FTL, and in a random star system you notice a mars-like planet. It wouldn’t be very interesting at all, considering everything else that’s on the market. It’s cheap to buy, but it would be kind of like buying a $14,000 dollar house: No A/C, no heating, no running water, no electricity unless you bring your own generator, ect. (Meaning that it would take some serious work to live on it, you’re going to have to install everything that you need.

  3. BDKC Spronk says:

    This is unilaterally, a habitable planet doesn’t have to look or be like our planet to be habitable. There are thousands of other ways for life to evolve. This formula is only based on the similarity to the earth and not habitability. Consequently the value of other planets is not very reliable, because they could be full of life and yet only be worth $600,000. If you only measure the value to us however, this formula is considerably good.

  4. grikdog says:

    Oh, come now! Everyone knows the price of a world is one human soul. This is just haggling.

  5. Mark Dow says:

    The unknowns about habitability (e.g. the availability of oxygen, water) shouldn’t be in the equation yet, but what about the neighbors? For example if there’s a gas giant smack in the middle of the habitable zone, does that preclude a habitable planet that has a long lifetime?

    • Lee Billings says:

      That’s a very good point, Mark. I think there’s plenty of room for variation and additional terms in the framework Greg presented. Maybe someone will read all this and try to concoct their own version, with custom tweaks that reflect their own take on how habitability should be evaluated… The subjectivity of some of this stuff seems a bit more art than science, but that’s part of the fun.

      • Mark Dow says:

        Yes, there is some subjectivity, but this encourages reflection and debate. Finally some solid data to go into the Drake equation (frequency of stars with planets), making it less subjective.

        • Lucianne Walkowicz says:

          Hi Mark,
          There are actually a fair number of people who are interested in the habitability of moons orbiting giant planets (like the moons of Jupiter in our own Solar System). While at the moment it would be difficult to detect, if there was a giant planet in the habitable zone it wouldn’t immediately mean that the system couldn’t have a habitable world, because there’d be the possibility of that giant planet having a rocky satellite!

          • Mark Dow says:

            Good point. Perhaps giants in a habitable zone are of more potential value, if they tend to have many moons with a variety of atmospheres.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I imagine the amount goes up if the planet is near a hyperspace bypass; Much, much less if it intersects a planned hyperspace bypass.

  7. happytweak says:

    Got pissed, wrote a rant, drank kool-aid, got un-pissed.

    Are people really becoming morons like this?
    There is no such value, no possible way to calculate it, and if even there where, price-tagging the universe kinda means that we own it.

    Which, you know, we don’t. Kind of the opposite.
    The Universe owns us. A car doesn’t try to sell the plant that made it.

  8. Anonymous says:

    According to the Loch Ness Monster, a new planet is worth about tree fiddy.

  9. Anonymous says:

    is is tax free ?

  10. Brainspore says:

    Our most likely candidate human colonization is the price of a used car? Reminds me of the story about the Dutch buying Manhattan for less than 40 bucks.

  11. netherwerks says:

    This is a fascinating tool for calculating the perceived value of a planetary discovery in terms of projected public reaction. It doesn’t take into account the very real monetary value of a property of say Mars, for example, in terms of the money generated from its use in fiction or entertainment. Mars is worth far more than $14,000 to Disney alone with their revival of John Carter on the way. Just a thought.

    It would be rather intriguing to see this euation stretched out a bit to encompass projected costs of transportation, etc. to help map out the economics of terraforming, colonizations, etc.

    Very interesting work–Lee Billings has given us all a lot to think about. Thank you sir!

  12. imag says:

    What an incredible last thought. A civilization which has a second hospitable planet around its star is going to jump to spacefaring much more quickly. We would probably already have serious bases on Venus if it were habitable. The urge to go would just be too strong.

    It remains to be seen what are the odds of two habitable planets in on system, but it has almost certainly happened somewhere. I would guess that in order to be “habitable”, a planet would have to have photosynthetic life, at low levels at least, to scrub the atmosphere and crank out the required oxygen.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Amazing! This research is extremely relevant to the title of my new book:

    “Men are from a planet worth significantly more than the planet women are from, but still a planet that is not really worth all that much.”

  14. Anonymous says:

    How does unobtainium factor into the equation?

  15. TimDrew says:

    Cost of Kepler mission: $600 Million

    Return on investment / value placed on planets discovered, and their potential as expressed in Monetary terms: Variable ( see article above ;) )

    The increasing awareness that we may not be alone in the Cosmos: Priceless

  16. thirdway says:

    Amazing! Great job on explaining a tool that looks to be very…… valuable.

    Keep up the reporting on cutting edge science. go science!

  17. Lobster says:

    I’ll sell you one for $500!

  18. Lucianne Walkowicz says:

    For my $0.02 worth of opinion, I’d remind readers to remember that you’re looking at worth in media coverage, where worth may vary based on one’s personal exchange rate for various news sources. This equation is a way of valuing how much *hype* can be afforded a planetary discovery. It’s cute, but hides a good deal of other caveats besides those related directly to habitability.

    First a minor correction: “the mass ratio of the planet to the star, raised to the 1/3rd power.” The way the equation is written, Greg actually means it’s the ratio of the mass of the *star* that has the planet in question to the Sun’s mass, so that one favors lower mass stars.

    To the above comment, I’d add that while Kepler seems to be telling us that low mass stars are a good place to find for Earth *sized* planets, Greg is playing a little loose with the phrase “Earth-like”. It’s true that we skew our searches towards lower mass worlds, and with good reason, but low mass stars also pose some unique problems for the planets around them. Because these stars are so cool, their habitable zones lie very close to the star– you can think of the planets being huddled around the embers of a campfire to stay warm. However, cool stars are what we call “active”, meaning they have lots of flares. Flares are a problem because they emit high energy radiation (like X-rays and UV light) that can harm life as we know it, and can change the planet’s atmosphere over time. On the one hand, these flares become less common with age– Greg includes a bias towards older stars to account for this, in part. On the other hand, low mass stars may also flare for a longer portion of their youth than stars like our Sun.

    To me, one of the big questions is what flares do to planetary atmospheres– we know that over time, getting smacked again and again by stellar flares can cause the atmosphere not only to change its composition, but to actually erode, so you could take a world that was potentially habitable and end up with a dry, barren rock. Now, that’s not an inevitable outcome– there are ways a planet can keep its atmosphere over time, and we are still learning about how flares affect planets generally speaking. I don’t think it’s a dealbreaker for habitability, I just want to point out some of the complexity hiding in those simple terms.

    I’d also like to point out that the impact of a discovery devaluing with time from the Kepler launch leaves out an important population of planets: ones like ours. Because it takes at least 3 transits to find a planet, and because planets that are in 1 year orbits around their stars (i.e. the habitable zone for stars like our Sun), it will take roughly 4 years for Kepler to detect planets in orbits like ours just because of how infrequent the transits are. I am guessing finding a small planet in an Earth-like orbit around a Sun-like star would be a pretty big deal.

    Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there is a big missing term in Greg’s equation: UNCERTAINTY. Where are the error bars on those dollar values? It may score high on the hype-o-meter, but remember: the least habitable planet is the one that is not actually there.

    • Lee Billings says:

      Great comments as always, Lucianne, and I think the errors you point out are actually mine, not Greg’s, due to a couple of edits I made to the transcript of our conversation.

      Your analysis is precisely the sort of thing I wanted to foment with the post, and I’m guessing Greg is of a similar mind. The point is to get people talking about confirmed and candidate planets in an objective way that quantifies what’s known and unknown about them. The more context we can squeeze out of these little dips in light curves, the better.

  19. allium says:

    I’ll buy that for a dollar!*

    * Mainly because it’s orbiting an M5 flare star and has sulfur dioxide oceans.

  20. Elmo Gearloose says:

    Alert! Geeky Trek reference ahead!

    How much for the planet with sexy Orion slave girls?

  21. Anonymous says:

    What if someone living there has calculated we ourselves aren’t worth a pinch of salt.

  22. MikeBrown says:

    If I did the math right here, Pluto is worth well under one penny. So, yeah, I think the equation seems spot on….

  23. Nelson.C says:

    Is that “exp -” thing instead of writing e an astrophysicist idiosyncracy? I was doing an astro course a while ago and was confused as heck when I came across it in an equation (not to mention the habit of not using consistent units throughout, but just labelling the units inside the equation). Don’t astrophysicists know how to use LaTeX?

  24. Anonymous says:

    Hey everyone!

    I just assembled a simple online calculator for this equation.
    See it at:

    Just write the values in the fields, then press “Calculate value”.
    Send me a mail to hajnalm (at) gmail (dot) com if you have any questions, suggestions or remarks.
    Have fun!

  25. Anonymous says:

    Just a thought. If a person or corporation were to own a planet, wouldn’t all the associated IP that goes with it belong to that person too? So Pluto would be exceedingly cheap at 1/10 of a cent. Pluto cola, coffee, car, boat, pod, tablet… place consumer usable here. All naming rights paid to Pluto corporation, owner of Pluto.

  26. SamSam says:

    Venus is worth “10^-12 of a single cent?” Hey, can I buy it then? Tell you what, I’ll offer twice what it’s worth.

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