Has the planet Vulcan been found? Vulcan’s most famous fictional inhabitant, Mr. Spock of “Star Trek” fame, would certainly raise an eyebrow if he heard that astronomers have detected a super-Earth orbiting the star that’s associated with him.
The world orbits a sunlike star that’s a mere 16 light-years away, known as HD 26965 or 40 Eridani A, according to the team behind the Dharma Planet Survey.
In the current Star Trek canon, 40 Eridani A is the star that harbors Spock’s home planet. Some early references pointed to a different star, known as Epsilon Eridani (which is also thought to host at least one exoplanet). But in a 1991 essay, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and a group of astronomers argued that 40 Eridani A, the brightest star in a triple-star system, was a better fit because its 4 billion years of existence provided a wider window for pointy-eared intelligent life to evolve.
The latest findings suggest Roddenberry made the right choice: The planet found at 40 Eridani A is roughly twice Earth’s size and completes an orbit around its parent star every 42 Earth days, said University of Florida astronomer Jian Ge.
HD 26965 is an orange dwarf star, only slightly cooler and slightly less massive than our sun, with a 10.1-year magnetic activity cycle that’s nearly identical to our sun’s 11.6-year sunspot cycle. “Therefore, HD 26965 may be an ideal host star for an advanced civilization,” Tennessee State University astronomer Matthew Muterspaugh said today in a news release.
— Alan Boyle (@b0yle) September 19, 2018
The astronomers made their find using the 50-inch Dharma Endowment Foundation Telescope on Mount Lemmon in Arizona, and laid out the details in a paper published by the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. But you don’t need a telescope to see 40 Eridani A.
“This star can be seen with the naked eye, unlike the host stars of most of the known planets discovered to date,” said lead study author Bo Ma, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Florida. “Now anyone can see 40 Eridani on a clear night and be proud to point out Spock’s home.”
Unfortunately for Star Trek fans, it’s unlikely that the planet will end up being named Vulcan. The International Astronomical Union recently set up a system for naming exoplanets, but Vulcan already has a history as the name of a hypothetical planet that was once thought to exist within the orbit of Mercury. The IAU nixed using the name for one of Pluto’s moons, and the same rationale would probably lead to Vulcan being counted out for exoplanets as well.
Would Spock, who prides himself on his cold logic, see that as an insult? Not likely. As he once pointed out in a TV episode, “Insults are effective only where emotion is present.”
Update for 5:25 p.m. PT Sept. 26: Originally I wrote that HD 26965’s close-in planet was potentially habitable, but that may be a stretch, according to one of the study’s co-authors, University of Washington astronomer Rory Barnes.
In the news release about the find, the University of Florida’s Jian Ge was quoted as saying that the planet was “just inside the star’s optimal habitable zone,” but that was meant in the sense that the planet is interior to the habitable zone — that is, too close to its sun for habitability.
“The planet receives 9 to 10 times more incident sunlight than Earth, and about five times that of Venus,” Barnes told GeekWire in an email. “While it’s a great big universe, and I hate to say ‘never,’ the number of properties and processes that would have to come together continuously over billions of years to permit a habitable region on this planet are staggering — the probability of life on it is vanishingly tiny.”
But don’t give up the search for Spock just yet. NBC News quotes Ge as saying that life forms might be able to survive on the planet’s cooler dark side, particularly if they live in caverns like the ones on Star Trek’s fictional Vulcan.
Ma, Ge, Muterspaugh and Barnes are among 27 authors of the paper published in the Monthly Notices, titled “The First Super-Earth Detection from the High Cadence and High Radial Velocity Precision Dharma Planet Survey.”