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NASA gets Vulcan-ised

NASA gets Vulcan-ised

By Mark Steer

Last week was a big one in space. Firstly astronomers announced the discovery of the most hellish planet yet found. Bucked up by the news they got a little overconfident. Before a group of bemused journalists, and before anyone in authority could stop them, they proclaimed a new initiative to locate Mr Spock’s home planet of Vulcan. But more of that later.

It’s been twelve years since scientists first identified a planet outside our own solar system and in the last few years they’ve really picked up the pace. They’ve found planets where wind speeds exceed 10,000 km/h, planets which orbit mega-dense stars and even planets that could harbour life. The latest discovery, however, is a bit different.

"Tragedy averted – Spock’s existence is still a possibility."
Located in the Hercules constellation about 27 light years away, the Saturn-sized, gas giant HD 149026b is the densest, hottest and blackest planet yet discovered. Its core is ninety times bigger that Earth and it contains more heavy elements than exist in all the planets in the solar system. It reaches a blistering 2000 ºC and reflects almost no light back into space. (pic)

What is surprising is "it is so much hotter than even we had predicted," says planetary scientist Joseph Harrington of the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "To be this hot," he says, "the planet essentially has to be almost totally black, reflecting just a few percent of the light it receives from its star."

Whilst no doubt interesting, there is little possibility that there could be life on HD 149026b. Well, not life as we know it anyway. And this is galling for the Trekkies at NASA. They’ve hit back by announcing the start of SIM PlanetQuest. No, not the latest SimCity clone, but a planet finding mission. And what planet is top of the hit list? Vulcan. Yes, Vulcan – Mr Spock’s home planet. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Someone’s got all excited about the fact that we now have the capability to look for planets in 40 Eridani – a three star system 16.5 light years away. It is this star system that was revealed as the location of Vulcan in Star Trek: Enterprise. The mission hopes to find a planet orbiting the main star, which is slightly smaller and cooler than the Sun.

Astronomical killjoys had previously claimed that the 40 Eridani system couldn’t support habitable planets due to the interactions of the three different stars. However, according to Dr Sean Raymond of the University of Colorado, Boulder, an Earth-like planet would be able to exist there since the three stars in 40 Eridani are very far apart. Tragedy averted – Spock’s existence is still a possibility.

For there to be life though, Vulcan would have to be in orbit in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ – not too close to and not too far from the main star, where liquid water could exist on its surface.

If a suitable planet is found we can expect any inhabitants to be a bit pasty looking. 40 Eridani’s main star emits light at slightly longer wavelengths than the Sun, making it more difficult to get a good tan. So it’s probably best to stick to Spain for your next holiday, but if you’re hoping to go to the first interstellar Star Trek Convention you had better get in there soon – tickets are going fast.

Keep on top of space with the Null:

- News - Sail the space yacht
- Spoof - The galactic sandwich
- News - Grass on other planets isn't greener
- Interactive - Get a trip to Mars... of sorts

Images: NASA

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21 Jan 2010
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