Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, the pointy-eared, highly logical alien who served on the starship Enterprise, transcends science fiction. And, it turns out that Spock’s home world — the fictional planet Vulcan — may be closer to science fact than anyone ever expected.
Star Trek described Vulcan as an alien world, much hotter than Earth, covered with deserts and mountain ranges. It was bigger, with a stronger pull of gravity at the surface than on our planet.
The series never named the star that the planet Vulcan orbited. But that didn’t stop fans from speculating. Finally, in 1991, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, along with three Harvard astronomers, wrote a letter to “Sky and Telescope” magazine to declare that Vulcan orbited a nearby star known as 40 Eridani A, located about 16 light years from Earth in the constellation Eridanus.
At the time, there was no way of knowing if that star actually had any planets. But, based on what astronomers knew of the star’s age and other similarities to our Sun,
Roddenberry said, it was a logical choice.
Last week, astronomers announced that they had found evidence that 40 Eridani A does indeed have a planet circling it that is hotter and bigger than Earth, with higher surface gravity. In other words, they found a planet very much like Vulcan circling the very star Roddenberry said Vulcan orbited.
Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that an advanced civilization devoted to logic and reason exists on the newly discovered planet. So don’t expect to meet Spock, his father Sarek, or other Vulcans any time soon.
Indeed, the planet around 40 Eridani A may be too hot for life, even for Spock and his fellow aliens. The planet orbits closer to its star than Earth does around the Sun.
A year on the planet takes only 42 days. It may be too close – and, therefore, too hot – for liquid water, an ingredient necessary for life, to exist on its surface. However life might survive underground, for example, in caves like those that dotted Spock’s home planet.
The new planet is about twice the size of Earth. If you stepped on a bathroom scale there, you’d weigh about twice what you do on our planet. While uncomfortable and exhausting, a human could survive in that heavier gravity, just as Spock’s human mother Amanda handled the harsh conditions on Vulcan.
The planet’s star, 40 Eridani A, is an orange star slightly smaller and cooler than our Sun. It’s the brightest star in a system composed of three stars. The two companions would shine brilliantly in the night sky of the newly discovered planet.
In a twist that Star Trek fans will appreciate, the lead author on the paper that announced the discovery of the new planet is an astrophysicist named Bo Ma. In an episode of the original series titled “Galileo Seven,” Lt. Boma, also an astrophysicist, is stranded on a planet with Spock and several others. Boma spends nearly the entire episode loudly and vehemently disagreeing with Spock.
The planet orbiting 40 Eridani A is too small and too faint to be seen with today’s telescopes. But astronomers can tell it’s there because its gravitational pull, tiny though it may be, causes very small changes in the light that we see from its parent star, changes that we can use to figure out the planet’s size and orbit.
With Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry created unforgettable characters and a universe that still fires the imaginations of fans decades later. Part of me was hoping the new planet really was Vulcan, and that Star Trek’s universe that celebrated peace, reason, and diversity was a little closer to being real.
Roddenberry was a true visionary. The crew’s communicators inspired the first cellphones. Our medical scanners are getting closer and closer to Dr. McCoy’s tricorder.
And now astronomers have found a planet eerily like Vulcan right exactly where Roddenberry said it would be. Life imitating art.
As Spock would say, “Fascinating.”
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.