“Logical. Flawlessly logical.”
That is what Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, might have said in response to an intriguing discovery in outer space. Astronomers have found an “exoplanet” that they say is reminiscent of the fictional planet Vulcan.
It’s orbiting a star in a system that is 16 light years from our own planet Earth.
In the series and films, it was firmly established that Vulcans and Earth inhabitants enjoyed a special bond. In one of the films, the nefarious Borg travel back in time to prevent the first Vulcan space ship from landing on our world and offering friendship.
The Dharma Planet Survey, in a new study led by University of Florida (UF) astronomer Jian Ge and a team that includes Tennessee State University (TSU) astronomers Matthew Muterspaugh and Gregory Henry, has “discovered” the planet Vulcan.
“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,” says Ge in UF News. “The planet is roughly twice the size of Earth and orbits its star with a 42-day period just inside the star’s optimal habitable zone.”
Super-Earths have a mass that is far greater than that of Earth but smaller than that of other gigantic, gaseous planets. This newly found one’s mass is twice that of our home planet and it orbits its host star “with a 42-day period just inside the star’s optimal habitable zone,” said Ge.
The discovery was made using the Dharma Endowment Foundation Telescope (DEFT), a 50-inch telescope that is mounted on top of Mount Lemmon in Arizona. The planet is the first “super-Earth” detected by the Dharma Survey.
It’s being compared to the fictional Vulcan because Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, once said the star HD 26965, also known as 40 Eridani A, was the ideal home system for Spock.
In 1991, Roddenberry and several Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomers wrote in a “letter to the editor” in Sky and Telescope that 40 Eridani A would be the perfect one for Vulcan.
“Presumably Vulcan orbits the primary star, an orange main-sequence dwarf of spectral type K1. … Two companion stars — a 9th magnitude white dwarf and an 11th magnitude red dwarf — orbit each other about 400 astronomical units from the primary. They would gleam brilliantly in the Vulcan sky,” they wrote in the letter.
The newly found planet is situated at the exact place where Roddenberry and the astronomers had imagined Vulcan to be.
According to the Daily Galaxy, “Star Trek fans may know the star HD 26965 by its alternative moniker, 40 Eridani A,” says Henry, who collected precise brightness measurements of the star at TSU’s observatory needed to verify the presence of the planet. “Vulcan was connected to 40 Eridani A in the publications Star Trek 2 by James Blish and Star Trek Maps by Jeff Maynard,” explains Henry.
This star can be seen with the naked eye, unlike the host stars of most of the planets that astronomers have discovered. “Now anyone can see 40 Eridani on a clear night and be proud to point out Spock’s home,” says Bo Ma, the first author of the paper just published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Captain James Kirk (William Shatner) and Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley) visit Vulcan along with Spock for one of the best loved episodes of the original series, “Amok Time,” which aired in 1967.
In it Spock must return to Vulcan “or die” to choose his mate, because of “Vulcan biology,” or as a bemused Kirk describes it, “the birds and the bees.”
Spock’s mate is his wife-by-arranged marriage, T’Pring (Arlene Martel), who decides to pit Spock against Kirk in a fight to the death for her own nefarious reasons.
Officiating over this battle is the autocratic T’Pau, played by Celia Lovsky, a distinguished Austrian actress at one time married to Peter Lorre.
As soon as the trio from the Starship Enterprise beams down, McCoy, reacting to the heat, says, “Yeah. ‘Hot as Vulcan.’ Now I understand what that phrase means.”
In the first Star Trek reboot, which was released in 2009, director J. J. Abrams blew up the entire planet Vulcan, killing millions of people and sparing only Mr. Spock and a few others.
It was a move that did not sit well with fans of the classic series.