Published By Blue On Wed, December 26, 2012 - 10:43
What once was science fiction is now science fact. Until the early 1990s, there were no known extra-solar planets. To date there have been 854 known and newly discovered ones are being found on a nearly-weekly basis. Only last week, astronomer Hugh Jones and colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire, UK used a new method of analyzing existing data - and announced they had found a long-sought after prize which planetary scientists and every child has visualized many times – Earth-type planets in the “Goldilocks Zone” around a Sun-like star. What is this fairy-tale nomenclature doing in the astronomy world? It’s a metaphor for a planet’s orbit wherein it’s not too hot (too close), and not too cold (too distant) but just right. Of course, the Goldilocks Zone varies with the size, mass and temperature of the planet’s parent star.
On 19 December 2012, five planets were discovered to orbit the star Tau Ceti. Although it’s a bit cooler and 78% as massive as our sun (Sol), Tau Ceti is also a G-type star. It’s visible from earth with the naked eye and it appears in the constellation Cetus. It’s the 32th closest star to ours – just 11.9 light-years (that’s about 70.2 trillion miles) – one of our very close neighbors in stellar terms.
Two of these five planets are in the Goldilocks Zone – where liquid water could exist. These two have been given the names Tau Ceti e and Tau Ceti f. Of these, Tau Ceti e holds particularly good chances of harboring life because of its position in this zone of potential life. Exobiologists believe that if liquid water and organic molecules are present – the chances of life evolving are dramatically increased. Another aspect of this discovery that’s very exciting here – is that once the James Webb Space Telescope is functional (about the year 2018), its capability of spectroscopy will allow it to ascertain the presence of water – as well as the products of life, e.g. carbon dioxide and methane. This will fundamentally change the way we view ourselves as human beings.
Once we know that there is life on distant planets, the differences some see between ethnicities, countries, religions, etc. will shrink - and in some minds they will disappear. The journey from infancy to healthy adulthood consists of a series of progressively less ego-centric points-of-view and correspondingly less ego driven behavior. The same is true of our species as a whole. Only a few centuries ago, people believed the world was flat and that the sun, the moon and all the stars revolved around the earth. Then we figured out that we revolved around the sun. Less than a century ago, in 1922, on one October night, Edwin Hubble discovered that our Milky Way galaxy was not alone - that we were one of many. It is now believed that there are anywhere from100 billion to 500 billion galaxies – each containing hundreds of billions of stars – and each of those stars have the very probability of planets. There are so many places for life to spring up.