Planets Galore!

Seth Jarvis

There’s an AP news story out today about astronomers announcing the discovery of 32 new planets orbiting stars other than our Sun.  That’s quite a number for a single announcement!

I keep a little dashboard widget from NASA on my Mac at home that keeps a running score on the number of extra-solar planets that have been discovered.  When I left for work this morning the exoplanet tally stood at 374.  As I write this post, that number has zoomed past 400.


Think about that for a moment.  We now know of 50 extra-solar planets for every one planet in our solar system.  That 50:1 ratio is only going to get more lopsided as research continues.

I wrote this past summer about how astronomers hunt for exoplanets here.

Pay particular attention to the Kepler research spacecraft currently orbiting Earth.  This robotic telescope is right now simultaneously scanning about 100,000 stars in the vicinity of the constellation Cygnus on a hunt for earth-like planets.

Clark Planetarium will host a “Searching for other Earths” lecture this coming February by an astronomer working on the Kepler mission – keep an eye on the planetarium web site for details.

What we’ll do with scientific evidence of truly earth-like worlds in our galaxy is a fascinating topic to think about.

What would you do with certain knowledge of an earth-like planet a few hundred light years from us?  I can imagine lots of things – but shrugging my shoulders and saying “so what?” isn’t one of them.

When (not if) genuinely earth-like planets are discovered, that won’t mean UFOs are really alien spaceships.  The distances between us and any exoplanets are on the order of hundreds or thousands of light years.  In-person visits are out of the question – the distances involved are overwhelming.

If you could somehow make a spaceship travel ten thousand times faster than the fastest space vehicle ever launched, then a journey to one of the nearest of these recently discovered exoplanets would still require hundreds of years.

“Warp speed” is fine for sci-fi entertainment, but in the real world there are implacable laws of physics and mathematics that dictate why travel at the speed of light is impossible:

  • To travel at the speed of light you become more massive than the entire universe,
  • Your width shrinks to zero and you become two-dimensional,
  • Time stops completely for you and the universe ages out of existence in an eyeblink, and oh-by-the-way,
  • Your mathematics must be able to produce real-numbers answers for equations that involve dividing by zero.

You want to imagine going faster than light? (Scotty!  We need full power to the warp drive, NOW!)

Good luck with that.  Faster-than-light travel requires mathematics that produce real-number solutions to equations that involve taking the square-roots of negative numbers (go ahead and try that with your calculator).  Then there’s the whole cause-precedes-effect relationship being violated by superluminal speeds to deal with.  Good luck with that, too.

But don’t stop thinking about how to get to one of these soon-to-be-discovered earth-like exoplanets just because I’m throwing a few division-by-zero stumbling blocks in your path.  If you can actually, demonstrably and “for-reals” figure out a way to get to a habitable world orbiting Epsilon Eridani in less than ten years then fame and wealth beyond imagination are yours and I’ll be the first to applaud your success.

(But please  – don’t send me your ideas for a warp-drive.  I’m not in a position to evaluate such things.)

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