Mission Could Seek Out Spock's Home Planet

May 10, 2007
Mission Could Seek Out Spock's Home Planet
Artist's concept comparing our sun's habitable zone with that of 40 Eridani.

Science fiction may soon become science fact. Astronomers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have recently concluded that the upcoming planet-finding mission, SIM PlanetQuest, would be able to detect an Earth-like planet around the star 40 Eridani, a planet familiar to "Star Trek" fans as "Vulcan." 40 Eridani, a triple-star system 16 light-years from Earth, includes a red-orange K dwarf star slightly smaller and cooler than our sun. Vulcan is thought to orbit that dwarf star, called 40 Eridani A.

When pondering the idea that SIM might be able to detect Vulcan, astronomer Dr. Angelle Tanner at Caltech had two questions: Can a planet form around 40 Eridani A? Can SIM detect such a planet?

She consulted a planetary theorist, Dr. Sean Raymond of the University of Colorado, Boulder. "Since the three members of the triple star system are so far away from each other [hundreds of astronomical units - the Earth-Sun distance], I see no reason why an Earth-mass planet would not be able to form around the primary star, 40 Eridani A," he said.

If Vulcan life were to exist on the planet, the orbit of the planet would have to lie in a sweet spot around the star where liquid water could be present on its surface. Water is an essential ingredient for any organism to live long and prosper. For 40 Eridani A, this spot, or "habitable zone," is 0.6 astronomical units from the star. That means Vulcans would get to celebrate a birthday about every six months.

The SIM PlanetQuest instrument will be so accurate, it could measure the thickness of a nickel at a distance from Earth to the moon. Using a set of mathematical models based on Newton's Laws, Tanner was able to conclude that SIM would be able to definitively determine whether there is an Earth-mass planet orbiting in the habitable zone around 40 Eridani A, and could also determine its orbit.

This is quite an exciting prospect, since NASA's Terrestrial Planet Finder mission, planned for launch after SIM, would not only be able to take a rudimentary "picture" of the planet, but also could search for signatures of life such as methane and ozone

When asked what life would be like on Vulcan, Tanner speculated that the inhabitants might be pale. "A K dwarf star emits its light at wavelengths which are a bit redder compared to those from the sun, so I wonder whether it's harder to get a tan there," she said.

The results of Tanner's simulations will be submitted for publication in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

Source: NASA

Explore further: Astronomers discover likely precursors of galaxy clusters we see today

Related Stories

Follow the radio waves to exomoons, astrophysicists say

Aug 11, 2014

Scientists hunting for life beyond Earth have discovered more than 1,800 planets outside our solar system, or exoplanets, in recent years, but so far, no one has been able to confirm an exomoon. Now, physicists ...

Is calling E.T. a smart move?

Jan 29, 2010

In 2008, NASA beamed the Beatles song "Across the Universe" into deep space, sending a message of peace to any extraterrestrial who happens to be in the region of Polaris, also called the North Star, in 2439.

Solar System's Young Twin Has Two Asteroid Belts

Oct 27, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Astronomers have discovered that the nearby star Epsilon Eridani has two rocky asteroid belts and an outer icy ring, making it a triple-ring system. The inner asteroid belt is a virtual twin ...

Recommended for you

Rocky planets may orbit many double stars

13 hours ago

Luke Skywalker's home in "Star Wars" is the desert planet Tatooine, with twin sunsets because it orbits two stars. So far, only uninhabitable gas-giant planets have been identified circling such binary stars, ...

Is the universe finite or infinite?

Mar 27, 2015

Two possiblities exist: either the Universe is finite and has a size, or it's infinite and goes on forever. Both possibilities have mind-bending implications.

'Teapot' nova begins to wane

Mar 27, 2015

A star, or nova, has appeared in the constellation of Sagittarius and, even though it is now waning, it is still bright enough to be visible in the sky over Perth through binoculars or a telescope.

Dark matter is darker than once thought

Mar 27, 2015

This panel of images represents a study of 72 colliding galaxy clusters conducted by a team of astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and Hubble Space Telescope. The research sets new limits on ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.