LIVE long, and prosper: Star Trek’s planet Vulcan, of course, does not exist. But we’ve just found the next best thing.
The star 40 Eridani was identified by the long-lasting TV and movie franchise as being where to find Vulcan, the home of the science officer Spock. It’s even featured in a few episodes.
40 Eridani (also known as HD 26965) is a triple-star system about 16 light years distant. The main star isn’t terribly big, scraping in at 80 per cent the size of our own. The other two are tiny, and are in orbits tens of times further out than Pluto.
But, by being close, it’s a favourite for astronomers seeking planets.
They’ve found one.
It’s not exactly Earth-like.
It’s year lasts just 42 days. It’s radius is twice that of Earth. And it’s some 8.5 the mass of our own planet.
It’s likely to be hot on one side, and frozen on the other. At that distance, most worlds tend to end up tidal-locked — with its face permanently facing the star in the same way the same side of the moon always faces the Earth.
And its discovery was no coincidence.
It was the first star examined by researchers at the Fairborn Observatory working with the Dharma Planet Survey. The discovery was made using the Dharma Endowment Foundation Telescope (DEFT), a 50-inch telescope located atop Mt Lemmon in southern Arizona.
Somehow, one suspects there is a Spock fan among them.
Early data suggests it sits on the inner limit of the star’s ‘goldilocks zone’, where the temperature is suitable to support liquid water on its surface.
“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,” astronomers Matthew Muterspaugh said. “Therefore HD 26965 may be an ideal host star for an advanced civilisation.”
It could be a stretch for such a huge planet to fit the Star Trek script. According to its appearance in various shows, it is a hot, mountainous, thin-atmosphered desert world at the edge of human habitability.
But the real planet’s size and density indicates an overly-strong gravity.
We’re not likely to know any time soon, however.
But logic dictates it cannot yet be ruled out.
“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 out Spock’s home,” says Bo Ma, a UF postdoc on the team and the first author of the paper just published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.