In a wonderful example of truth validating fiction, the star system imagined as the location of Vulcan, Spock’s home world in Star Trek, has a planet orbiting it in real life.
A team of scientists spotted the exoplanet, which is about twice the size of Earth, as part of the Dharma Planet Survey (DPS), led by University of Florida astronomer Jian Ge. It orbits HD 26965, more popularly known as 40 Eridani, a triple star system 16 light years away from the Sun.
Made up of a Sun-scale orange dwarf (Eridani A), a white dwarf (Eridani B), and a red dwarf (Eridani C), this system was selected to be “Vulcan’s Sun” after Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry consulted with astronomers Sallie Baliunas, Robert Donahue, and George Nassiopoulos about the best location for the fictional planet.
“An intelligent civilization could have evolved over the aeons on a planet circling 40 Eridani,” Roddenberry and the astronomers suggested in a 1991 letter to the editor published in Sky & Telescope. The three stars “would gleam brilliantly in the Vulcan sky,” they added.
The real-life exoplanet, known as HD 26965b, is especially tantalizing because it orbits just within the habitable zone of its star, meaning that it is theoretically possible that liquid water—the key ingredient for life as we know it—could exist on its surface.
However, it’s unlikely that this "Super-Earth" hosts a rich civilization of scrupulously logical humanoids. The exoplanet has a short year of around 39 to 44 days, and according to new research published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, it’s probably tidally locked to its host star. That means that the same side of the planet is always facing Eridani A, so this star-flushed face would likely be too hot to host life on the surface. It’s possible, though, that the dark side could be more hospitable.
Ge and his colleagues want to conduct more telescopic studies to get a better sense of what HD 26965b might be like. “We plan to obtain more follow-up observations at different observatories to hopefully extract more info about this planet and its environment,” Ge told me in an email. “Since this is the closest Sun-like star with a known planet, it offers a big advantage to obtain more signals than other more distant planets.”
Likewise, the team will continue work on the DPS project, which is designed to search for terrestrial planets around 150 Sun-like stars within 100 light years of our solar system.
“More candidates have already been shown up in our data,” Ge said. “Once we confirm these signals are real, we will publish more discoveries.”
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