Goodbye Vulcan: Real-life Star Trek exoplanet doesn’t exist

Serious man with pointy ears looking up from a console.
Leonard Nimoy as Spock in a publicity photo for the 1960s American television show Star Trek. Astronomers thought they’d located a real-life planet Vulcan where Spock’s homeworld was supposed to be. But that “discovery” was an astronomical illusion. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
  • HD 26965 b, also nicknamed Vulcan after the famous planet in the Star Trek franchise, was thought to orbit the sunlike star 40 Eridani A, 16 light-years away. But some astronomers had doubts.
  • A new study indicates the planet doesn’t really exist. Telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory showed the planet is likely just an astronomical illusion.
  • While disappointing, there are still thousands of other confirmed exoplanets that astronomers have discovered.

Vulcan was just an illusion

Now you see it, now you don’t. In 2018, astronomers said they had found an exoplanet orbiting the sunlike star 40 Eridani A. It didn’t take long for the planet to earn the nickname Vulcan, the home planet of Spock in “Star Trek.” That’s because the fictional Vulcan supposedly orbited the star 40 Eridani A, too. But on May 28, 2024, a team of researchers using telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona said a new study shows the planet never really existed at all. It was an astronomical illusion.

The research team, led by Abigail Burrows at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, published their peer-reviewed results in The Astronomical Journal on April 26, 2024.

Exoplanet Vulcan: Mottled reddish sphere with bright and dark patches. Stars in black space in background.
View larger. | Artist’s concept of what HD 26965 b – or Vulcan – might have looked like, if it actually existed. A new study shows that the possible exoplanet is likely just an astronomical illusion. Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech.

A real-life exoplanet Vulcan?

Finding a possible planet around the star 40 Eridani A – made famous in “Star Trek” – was exciting. Indeed, the science fiction version of the planet, Vulcan, was a well-known staple of “Star Trek” lore as Spock’s homeworld. And there could actually be a real planet orbiting that star. And it was only 16 light-years away. Scientists gave it the scientific name HD 26965 b. But after the original discovery in 2018, some astronomers had doubts. In fact, some studies suggested it didn’t really exist at all.

Even the astronomers who made the initial possible detection of the real-life Vulcan cautioned it might not be real.

HD 26965 b was thought to be a “super-Earth.” That is, a planet larger than Earth, but smaller than Neptune. It orbited its star every 42 days.

A new search for Vulcan

Now, new analysis has not only added to the previous doubts, it has pretty much squashed the idea of HD 26965 b being a real planet. The researchers used high-precision radial velocity measurements that had not been available in 2018. They used a newer radial velocity instrument called NEID, at Kitt Peak National Observatory. It utilizes the Doppler effect to measure shifts in the light spectrum of a star. Those shifts can reveal slight wobbling motions due to the gravitational pull of planets.

Reddish sphere with bluish patches on light gray background.
View larger. | This is an artist’s concept of the planet Vulcan in “Star Trek.” Image via Shisma/ Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

An astronomical illusion

The researchers looked for the signal of the planet at various wavelengths of light coming from the star. In so doing, they found something not quite right. There were differences between the individual wavelength measurements and the total measurement when they were combined together. What did that mean?

It suggested the Doppler signal of the planet was instead something “flickering” on the surface of the star itself. This coincided with the observed 42-day rotation. It could be due to convection, the movement of hotter and cooler layers beneath the star’s surface. Star spots – like our sun’s sunspots – and plages may also play a role. Plages are bright regions, kind of the opposite of dark star spots. Plage is the French word for beach.

Essentially, the planet was an astronomical illusion. As the paper concluded:

… the likely origin of the periodic signal seen in HD 26965 is stellar activity.

40 Eridani A is one of three stars in the 40 Eridani system, in the constellation Eridanus the River. If there was a planet orbiting 40 Eridani A, the other two stars would shine brightly in its sky. 40 Eridani B is a white dwarf star, while 40 Eridani C is a red dwarf.

Still a lot of exoplanets out there

The new and improved radial velocity measurements will also help astronomers identify other false positive exoplanets, which is a good thing. But not to worry, there are still thousands of confirmed exoplanets astronomers have found. And there will be many more in the months and years ahead.

Bottom line: Astronomers thought there might be a real-life version of the famous “Star Trek” exoplanet Vulcan orbiting the star 40 Eridani A. But a new study shows it’s not real.

Source: The Death of Vulcan: NEID Reveals That the Planet Candidate Orbiting HD 26965 Is Stellar Activity


Read more: Life imitates art? Astronomers find Star Trek planet Vulcan

Read more: Tatooine exoplanets may be more habitable than we thought

June 9, 2024

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