Newfound exoplanet orbits a star identified with the famed science officer from “Star Trek.”

Key takeaways

  • Astronomers have identified a new exoplanet around 40 Eridani A, known to ‘Star Trek’ fans as Vulcan’s host star.
  • Named HD 26965b, this super-Earth is roughly twice the size of Earth and orbits within its star’s habitable zone.
  • The discovery was made using the Dharma Endowment Foundation Telescope in Arizona, detecting subtle gravitational shifts of the star.
  • Despite its fictional namesake, the exoplanet may be too hot on its sun-facing side for life, though its darker side could potentially harbor life underground.
  • This star, visible to the naked eye, allows enthusiasts to connect real astronomy with popular culture by spotting Spock’s fictional home in the night sky.

No one claims that there are any pointy-eared aliens living there, but astronomers have identified an exoplanet circling 40 Eridani A, a star known to “Star Trek” fans as the host star of Spock’s home planet, Vulcan.

The newly discovered exoplanet is located in the constellation Eridanus, 16 light years away from Earth. It circles its host star, a sun-like star with the scientific name of HD 26965, well inside the habitable zone, where liquid water and life as we know it are feasible.

“It came as a total surprise to us,” Jian Ge, a professor of astronomy at the University of Florida and co-author of a new paper about the discovery, told NBC News MACH in an email. “We did not have an intention to look for Vulcan orbiting HD 26965.”

The exoplanet is roughly twice the size of Earth and is regarded the nearest “super-Earth” circling a sunlike star. It is now known as HD 26965b, in accordance with the International Astronomical Union’s naming standards. But Ge said he wanted to contact the Union and request that the exoplanet be called Vulcan.

It may be entertaining to name a real-life planet after a fictitious universe, but is it rational, as Spock may ask? “Absolutely yes!” Sara Seager, an astronomer and planetary scientist at MIT, said in an email. “‘Star Trek’ (and other science fiction) paved the way for people to get excited about real exoplanets.”

According to Ge, the exoplanet likely has an atmosphere and is tidally bound to its host star. That implies one side is always facing the star, while the other is pointing away. If this is the case, the side facing the host star will most likely be extremely hot—”probably too hot to be habitable,” Seager added.

However, Ge stated that the surface of the dark, colder side may be livable, adding, “On the other hand, life can survive underground.” Vulcans live in caverns, as seen in Star Trek.

According to Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, super-Earths “could very well be the sort of world where life could begin, and possibly evolve into intelligent beings… But you’ve got to ask yourself — with all the twists and turns of evolutionary history on any planet, how likely is it that a planet 16 light-years away would eventually produce beings that look nearly identical to us, except for ears that would challenge any barber?”

The exoplanet was found with the Dharma Endowment Foundation Telescope, a 50-inch telescope located atop Mount Lemmon in southern Arizona. However, rather than directly detecting the exoplanet, the scientists deduced its presence from the slight fluctuations of its host star in reaction to the exoplanet’s shifting gravitational field.

The Dharma Endowment Foundation TelescopeUniversity of Florida

“This reflex motion is much smaller because the star has so much more mass than the planet, but with ultra-stable instrumentation, it can be detected,” said Matthew Muterspaugh, a Tennessee State University astronomer and co-author of the work.

However, you do not need a telescope to observe HD 26965.

“This star can be seen with the naked eye, unlike the host stars of most of the known planets discovered to date,” Bo Ma, the paper’s first author and a postdoctoral student at the University of Florida, stated. “Now anyone can see 40 Eridani on a clear night and be proud to point to Spock’s home.”

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