In the “Star Trek” universe, the star 40 Eridani A (alias HD 26965) has long been canon as the sun of Vulcan, the home world of the franchise’s favorite pointy-eared science officer, Mr. Spock.
This was first established in 1968 by James Blish’s script anthology Star Trek 2 and later affirmed in 1980’s Star Trek Maps by Jeff Maynard. But it wasn’t until 1991 that show creator Gene Roddenberry himself (backed by a few astrophysicists) penned a letter in scientific support of 40 Eridani as a probable host for Vulcan viability. Nearly three decades later, a new discovery from the University of Florida delivers some serious vindication to the choice, revealing a real-life planet actually clocking in at coordinates eerily reminiscent of the fictional M-Class planet.
A group of astronomers led by University of Florida’s Jian Ge first visualized the Vulcan lookalike as part of Dharma Planet Survey, which is exploring some 150 very bright stars near our solar system. The discovery marks the project’s first detection of a “super-Earth,” classified as a planet between two and ten times as massive as our own. This new candidate boasts a radius twice the size of Earth’s, and has nearly nine times the mass.
But the new find may have the potential to support life—and it’s the “closest [known] super-Earth orbiting another Sun-like star,” says Ge in a University of Florida press release.
And what about that Sun-like star? Compared to our own Sun, 40 Eridani A is a little smaller and cooler. But though the two stars are separated by about 17 light-years, according to David Bressan at Forbes, they’re thought to be about the same age—4.6 billion years old. This longtime solar sustenance could reasonably give the “Vulcan” planet enough time to evolve complex life forms. What’s more, this new celestial body orbits 40 Eridani A in what’s called a habitable zone, or a region with temperatures that could theoretically permit the existence of liquid water—a key requirement to live long and prosper.
“HD 26965 may be an ideal host star for an advanced civilization,” says study author Tennessee State University astronomer Matthew Muterspaugh in the release.
That being said, the new super-Earth candidate isn’t quite a home away from home: at their behemoth size and mass, many super-Earths exhibit a much higher gravitational pull than we’re used to, making us feel several times heavier than we would here on Earth. To make matters worse, this newly detected planet’s perimeter of orbit around 40 Eridani A is tight: A year there would barely last 42 days, and at such close proximity to its star, inhabitants could be exposed to some pretty toasty temperatures.
There’s a debate raging among astrophysicists, too, about how livable super-Earths even are. Leading planetary scientists like Alessandro Morbidelli of the University of Nice, France, believe that many such super-Earths may be uninhabitable (though arguments have also been made to the contrary). However, given the loose definition for these planets, issuing a single blanket statement about super-Earth habitability would be highly illogical, to borrow the words of one esteemed science officer.
Sadly, the newly detected planet is unlikely to acquire the official “Vulcan” moniker anytime soon. As Alan Boyle at GeekWire reports, “Vulcan” has already been tossed around as a hypothetical planet once thought to exist within the orbit of Mercury, and the International Astronomical Union’s planet-naming system can be a little prickly about names that tread on intellectual property rights. In fact, Boyle reports, the IAU recently vetoed the name for one of Pluto’s moons.
But devoted Trekkers (many of whom are in the space business, themselves) may not be too bothered by that.
After all, as planetary scientist Jessie Christiansen of NASA, pointed out on Twitter, [the planet] “is not very much like the fictional Vulcan.” “But,” she continues, “it’s a planet orbiting the same star and planets often have planet siblings, so I’m excited for more!”
Indeed, as astrophysicist Andy Howell of the Las Cumbres Observatory noted on Twitter: “If you're going by the new movies’ Star Trek lore, the planet the @UF astronomers found in 40 Eridani A could be Delta Vega, as the writers put it so close to Vulcan that you could see Vulcan huge in the sky from the surface.” (That’s the planet Captain Kirk met Spock in the 2009 franchise revival.)
And, until proven otherwise, the planet remains potentially habitable, so for those hoping for a First Contact scenario, keep your eyes peeled to the sky.
According to “Star Trek” lore, after all, humans and Vulcans are scheduled to meet in the not-too-distant future of April 5, 2063.