Science & Technology

Astronomers Found Star Trek's Planet Vulcan, Basically

Astronomers boldly explored a star system we knew about before, and just found something new — a super-Earth. This rocky planet happens to orbit the same star of the Vulcan homeworld in the "Star Trek" universe. Better yet, the planet appears to be in the habitable zone, so in our most fanciful dreams, we can imagine the alien Spock standing on that world and looking at Earth.

Vulcan Phone Home

The planet's host star is called 40 Eridani, and it's only 16 light-years from Earth. Back in 1991, "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry co-authored a letter in Sky & Telescope saying that 40 Eridani was the star he envisioned when creating the homeworld of Spock — a half-Vulcan, half-human alien who is known for fusing logic and emotion in an awesome way.

And when astronomers discovered the planet recently, they found that it just may host water on its surface — a key indicator of habitability. It's a rocky world that orbits its host star every 42 days, and better yet, its star is only a little smaller and dimmer than our own. The star even has a sunspot cycle of roughly 10 years, which is very close to that of our sun (12 years).

40 Eridani "may be an ideal host star for an advanced civilization," said study co-author Matthew Muterspaugh, an astronomer at Tennessee State University. His team made the discovery using the Dharma Endowment Foundation Telescope that's located on Mt. Lemmon in southern Arizona. The new paper is led by the University of Florida post-doctoral scholar Bo Ma and published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Still Going Where No One Has Gone Before

The discovery is yet another example of how "Star Trek" — a futuristic series that originally depicted a crew exploring space on the U.S.S. Enterprise – continues to come true in our daily lives. Some of the "Star Trek"-like inventions of past decades include cell phones, tablet computers, and even tricorders: the devices used to assess and heal medical conditions.

While the original "Star Trek" series first aired in 1966, the franchise is still thriving — and evolving. "Star Trek" has always been known for pushing for equality and diversity; for example, a 1960s kiss between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura is often cited as the first interracial kiss portrayed on television. The latest iteration is called "Star Trek Discovery." Its star, Sonequa Martin-Green, is female, black, and (in the series lore) Vulcan. The series also featured the first openly gay couple in the franchise.

The first person to portray Spock was Leonard Nimoy, and he continued as that character for many decades and movies. In 2009, the franchise rebooted the original "Star Trek" crew in theaters and handed off Spock's portrayal to Zachary Quinto, who has since appeared in three movies. (In fact, the two Spocks appeared together in Hollywood movies in 2009 and 2013; Nimoy died before the latest one was released in 2016.) We may even see another Spock portrayal in "Discovery," because the series takes place in the same time period as Spock's lifetime.

So it's logical — Spock will definitely live long and prosper.

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Delve in further with "Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive" by Ethan Siegel. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Elizabeth Howell October 2, 2018

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