Star Trek’s planet Vulcan found to not be a planet after all
Credit: Public Domain Pixabay/CC0
A large international team of space scientists has discovered that the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting the star 40 Eridani was made in error. The group has published a paper on the arXiv preprint server that describes their reanalysis of the star and its exoplanet and how they discovered the error.
In 1966, the television show “Star Trek” made its debut – it lasted all of three years, but left an indelible impression on the American psyche. Several spin-offs have been made along with several movies. One of the main characters was an alien named Spock, who came from the planet Vulcan, which orbited a star called 40 Eridani A.
That star and its fictional planet were based on the real star 40 Eridani A and a putative exoplanet. In 2018, an exoplanet was discovered orbiting 40 Eridani A – it was called 40 Eri b, although many Star Trek fans no doubt wanted it to be called Vulcan. Unfortunately, it turns out that 40 Eri b doesn’t actually exist – the discovery was a mistake.
In this new effort, the researchers were working on a list of exoplanets that NASA is considering for closer study to make sure they are worthy of the huge costs involved. But looking closely at 40 Eri b, they found some problems.
Such problems were not entirely unexpected. Some astronomers had questioned whether 40 Eri b was actually a planet soon after it was discovered. This was because it seemed impossible for the duration of an orbit to be the same as the duration of a star’s rotation.
40 Eri b was thought to be a planet based on an analysis using radial velocity to study the wavelengths of light emitted by 40 Eridani. The team observed what they thought was a gravitational pull on the star, indicating attraction from an exoplanet. But in tracing the spectral features of the light from the star, the new team found that the tugging that had been observed was actually due to activity on the star’s surface – not evidence of an exoplanet.
More information: Katherine Laliotis et al, Doppler Constraints on Planetary Companions to Nearby Sun-like Stars: An Archival Radial Velocity Survey of Southern Targets for Proposed NASA Direct Imaging Missions, arXiv (2023). DOI: 10.48550/arxiv.2302.10310
Journal information: arXiv
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