An artist’s conception shows a super-Earth in orbit around HD 26965, which is Mr. Spock’s home star in “Star Trek” lore. (University of Florida Illustration)
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 potentially habitable 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, completes an orbit around its parent star every 42 Earth days, and lies just inside the star’s optimal habitable zone, 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.
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.”
Ma, Ge and Muterspaugh 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.” The authors also include Rory Barnes of the University of Washington.