Trekkies steer NASA mission toward Vulcan hunt

by Saleem Khan, CBC News Online

We were surprised today at news from NASA: "Mission could seek out Spock's home planet." That's right, Trekkies – I mean, astronomers – think NASA's upcoming planet-finding mission might be able to "detect an earth-like planet around the star 40 Eridani" – a three-star solar system that dedicated Star Trek fan(atic)s know as the location of Mr. Spock's homeworld, Vulcan.

Caltech astronomer Angelle Tanner wondered whether the SIM PlanetQuest probe could detect a planet should one be able to form around 40 Eridani A, the red-orange K dwarf star. "Vulcan is thought to orbit that dwarf star," according to NASA (which neglected to include the crucial qualifier "in Make-believe Land" in that sentence).

Upon examining the data, planetary theorist Sean Raymond of the University of Colorado, Boulder, said a planet that could sustain life could form there as long as its orbit was a distance equivalent to about three-fifths the earth's distance from our own sun.

The SIM PlanetQuest probe, which aims to detect planets around distant stars, would be able to find a planet with a mass similar to the earth's Tanner calculated. Her results [Quicktime movie] have been submitted to the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

But Star Trek – or the show's information site – gets a important few details wrong. Its entry on Vulcan says 40 Eridani – about 16 light-years from earth – is "located roughly in the same region as … Alpha Centauri." Alpha Centauri is the closest stellar system to our own – and 4.37 light years away. In other words, not even close. Trekkies really ought to know that.

But what we want to know after today's odd announcement is: When NASA is going to get serious and start looking for Caprica?

[And yes, the title and sprinkling of mockery in this post is all light-hearted. Who among the readers of this blog hasn't enjoyed Star Trek?]