All fans of TV series Star Trek will remember captain Spock. The wise and stoic half-human half-Vulcan spaceship officer was known for his extreme discipline acquired from growing up on planet Vulcan.
The planet was said to be 16 light years from Earth and consist of mostly deserts and mountains with large areas dedicated to wilderness preservation. It was believed to be hotter than earth with a stronger surface gravity.
Spock are you there?
Now, in what may be one of human history's strangest coincidences, a planet meeting similar criteria and located at the same distance has been discovered by the Dharma Planet Survey. The paper outlining the find is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society journal.
The research was led by University of Florida (UF) astronomer Jian Ge and a team including Tennessee State University (TSU) astronomers Matthew Muterspaugh and Gregory Henry. “The new planet is a ‘super-Earth’ orbiting the star HD 26965, which is only 16 light years from Earth, making it the closest super-Earth orbiting another Sun-like star,” said Ge.
The new eerily Vulcan-like planet is estimated to measure approximately twice the size of Earth and orbit its star in a 42-day period. Its star's characteristics are also similar to our Sun and are such that they could be conducive to the existence of life.
“The orange-tinted HD 26965 is only slightly cooler and slightly less massive than our Sun, is approximately the same age as our Sun, and has a 10.1-year magnetic cycle nearly identical to the Sun’s 11.6-year sunspot cycle,” explained Muterspaugh. “Therefore, HD 26965 may be an ideal host star for an advanced civilization.”
Surprisingly, the TV series seems to have predicted even this. On the show, Vulcan's star was also described in a way that oddly coincides with HD 26965 qualities although it had been given another name.
40 Eridani A
“Star Trek fans may know the star HD 26965 by its alternative moniker, 40 Eridani A,” said Henry. “Vulcan was connected to 40 Eridani A in the publications “Star Trek 2” by James Blish (Bantam, 1968) and “Star Trek Maps” by Jeff Maynard (Bantam, 1980)."
40 Eridani A was even confirmed as Vulcan’s host star in a 1991 letter published in the periodical “Sky and Telescope” by Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek's creator. Wow! Star Trek fans will be happy to hear they can now spot the real version of the famous on-screen star with their own eyes.
“This star can be seen with the naked eye, unlike the host stars of most of the known planets discovered to date. Now anyone can see 40 Eridani on a clear night and be proud to point out Spock’s home,” said Bo Ma, a UF postdoc on the team and the first author of the paper.
And Star Trek fans everywhere can thank the Dharma Endowment Foundation Telescope (DEFT), a 50-inch telescope located atop Mt. Lemmon in southern Arizona, for bringing Spock's home to life. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the newly found planet is the first “super-Earth” detected by the Dharma Survey.
“This discovery demonstrates that fully dedicated telescopes conducting high-cadence, high-precision radial velocity observations in the near future will continue to play a key role in the discovery of more super-Earths and even Earth-like planets in the habitable zones around nearby stars,” concluded Ge. Live long and prosper, we say.