Just how prophetic was Star Trek? Based on a recent discovery, it seems a lot. Astronomers have recently discovered an exoplanet orbiting 40 Eridani A, a star known to hard-core Star-Trek fans as Spock’s home planet, Vulcan. While no one is actually suggesting that any pointy-eared aliens live on this newly discovered exoplanet, the discovery is undeniably coincidental.
The “Vulcan”-like planet exists just 16 light years away from Earth in the Constellation Reidanus. The planet exists in the habitable zone in the orbit of its host star, designated HD 26965. The habitable zone suggests that it is possible for water to exist in liquid form, which is a necessary component for life to exist.
"It came as a total surprise to us. We did not have an intention to look for Vulcan orbiting HD 26965," admitted Jian Ge, a professor of astronomy at the University of Florida.
Some experts suggest that the existence of life is indeed possible on the exoplanet.
“The orange-tinted HD 26965 is only slightly cooler and slightly less massive than our Sun, is approximately the same age as our Sun, and has a 10.1-year magnetic cycle nearly identical to the Sun’s 11.6-year sunspot cycle. Therefore, HD 26965 may be an ideal host star for an advanced civilization,” says Tennessee State University (TSU) astronomers Matthew Muterspaugh.
The exoplanet is actually twice the size of Earth and is now considered to be the closest “super earth” orbiting a sun-like star. Ge claims that he intends to proposition the International Astronomical Union to officially name the planet Vulcan.
Astronomers believe that the planet is tidally locked to its host star, meaning that one side permanently faces the star, while the other side constantly faces away. As a result, the side facing the star would likely be " too hot to be habitable," said Sara Seager, an astrophysicist.
Ge counters that the dark side of the planet, however, would theoretically be habitable. "On the other hand, life can also survive underground. Like what Star Trek imagines, Vulcans stay in the caves."
Seth Shostak, another astronomer, states that Super-Earths, such as this newly discovered exoplanet, "could very well be the sort of world where life could begin, and perhaps evolve into intelligent beings... But you’ve got to ask yourself — with all the twists and turns of evolutionary history on any planet, how likely is it that a planet 16 light-years away would eventually produce beings that look nearly identical to us, except for ears that would challenge any barber?"
For many hardcore Star Trek fans, the discovery is exciting. "This star can be seen with the naked eye, unlike the host stars of most of the known planets discovered to date. Now anyone can see 40 Eridani on a clear night and be proud to point to Spock's home,” said Bo Ma, a University of Florida postdoctoral student.
For many astronomers, this discovery is just the beginning,
"This discovery demonstrates that fully dedicated telescopes conducting high-cadence, high-precision radial velocity observations in the near future will continue to play a key role in the discovery of more super-Earths and even Earth-like planets in the habitable zones around nearby stars," Ge said.
Who knows how many more potentially habitable worlds are waiting to be discovered?