May 21st, 2007

Vulcan

The Search For Spock

SPACE.COM — NASA's upcoming planet-finding mission SIM PlanetQuest will scan the star system 40 Eridani for signs of a habitable planet. If found, that planet would be the real-life counterpart of the fictional planet of "Vulcan," well-known in the Star Trek universe as the home of Admiral (formerly Mr.) Spock and the entire Vulcan race.

The Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) PlanetQuest, which is overseen by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California and slated to launch in 2015, is an orbiting interferometer that will link a pair of telescopes to function as a much larger "virtual telescope." 40 Eridani, a triple-star system 16 light-years from Earth, includes a red-orange K dwarf star slightly smaller and cooler than our Sun. …

The stars of 40 Eridani lie hundreds of astronomical units (AUs) apart. If Vulcan life were to exist on the planet, the orbit of the planet would have to lie in a "habitable zone" around the star where liquid water could exist, which would be at a distance of 0.6 astronomical units from 40 Eridani A. The Vulcans would have a year of about six months. Water is, of course, a necessary ingredient in plomeek soup, Spock's favorite. …

In determining if SIM could spot such a planet, [Caltech researcher Angelle] Tanner used a set of mathematical models based on Newton's Laws. She was thus able to conclude that SIM would be able to definitively determine whether there is an Earth-mass planet orbiting in the habitable zone around 40 Eridani A, and could also determine its orbit. This is because the SIM PlanetQuest instrument will be so accurate, it could measure the thickness of a nickel at a distance from Earth to the moon. The prospect of spotting this planet is quite exciting, since NASA's Terrestrial Planet Finder mission, planned for launch after SIM, would not only be able to take a rudimentary "picture" of the planet, but could also search for signatures of life such as methane and ozone. …

(Ganked from Brendan)