Star Trek is science fiction. But sometimes the lines between sci-fi and real astronomy blur, and that’s the case in this story. The (fictional) planet Vulcan – home world of the legendary Mr. Spock – was first connected to the (real) star 40 Eridani A in 1968, in the publication Star Trek 2 by James Blish. Among Star Trek fans, this star continued to be associated with Vulcan in the decades afterwards. Then, in 1991, Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry and three astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) confirmed in a letter to Sky & Telescope magazine that 40 Eridani A could indeed work as Vulcan’s host star. This month, a team of astronomers announced they’ve discovered a (real) planet for 40 Eridani A.
University of Florida astronomer Jian Ge, who led the discovery team, wrote in a statement:
The new planet is a super-Earth orbiting the star HD 26965 [aka 40 Eridani A], which is only 16 light-years from Earth, making it the closest super-Earth orbiting another sunlike star.
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.
Astronomer Matthew Muterspaugh of Tennessee State University, a member of the discovery team, added that this orange-tinted star:
… 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.
The newly found planet is the first super-Earth detected by the Dharma Planet Survey, which uses the 50-inch telescope atop Mt. Lemmon in southern Arizona. The survey’s goal is to look for possibly habitable planets around nearby stars.
The 40 Eridani star system is composed of three stars. The newly discovered planet orbits the primary star, and – as Roddenberry and the three CfA astronomers pointed out in their 1991 letter – the two companion stars:
… would gleam brilliantly in the Vulcan sky.
Astronomer Bo Ma of the University of Florida is the first author of the new paper, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. He commented:
This star can be seen with the unaided 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.
Read more from SkyandTelescope.com: Super-Earth Discovered in (Fictional) Vulcan System This story gives a lot of background about why Roddenberry and the CfA astronomers confirmed 40 Eridani A as being a good candidate for Spock’s home star.
Bottom line: Astronomers have found a planet in the habitable zone of 40 Eridani A, which many Star Trek fans identified as the home star of Mr. Spock.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.