'Planet Vulcan' from Star Trek Discovered in Solar System 'Ideal' for Advanced Civilization

Astronomers have discovered a new "super-Earth" orbiting a star known as HD 26965, which lies "just" 16 light-years away from Earth, according to a study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Super-Earths are planets outside the Solar System—or exoplanets—which have a mass between about two to 10 times that of the Earth's. The new planet is the closest super-Earth ever found orbiting a Sun-like star, which makes it an excellent destination for follow-up observations to study its properties and potential for future human exploration.

"This discovery is an important one due to the nature of the planet," Gregory Henry, an author of the study from Tennessee State University, told Newsweek. "There is no such planet in our own solar system, so it is surprising that so many super-Earths have been found in other planetary systems."

The planet is around twice the size of Earth and orbits HD 26965 every 42 days. Furthermore, it lies in the optimal habitable zone—the region around a star within which a planet can support liquid water on its surface given sufficient atmospheric pressure.

This characteristic makes the planet an interesting target in the search for life outside our Solar System, although the chances of finding it are still slim.

"The planet is located in the middle of the star and its predicted habitable zone, said Jian Ge, an astronomer from the University of Florida. "This planet very likely has atmosphere. The surface would be very hot, which may be hostile to life. However, the planet is likely tidally locked [always facing the same way] due to its proximity to the star. If this is the case, the dark side of the planet can be much cooler and may be suitable for life."

The properties of the star itself are also intriguing, according to Matthew Muterspaugh, another author of the study from Tennessee State University.

"The orange-tinted HD 26965 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," he said in a statement. "Therefore, HD 26965 may be an ideal host star for an advanced civilization."

The planet was discovered using the 50-inch Dharma Endowment Foundation Telescope (DEFT) atop Mt. Lemmon in Southern Arizona, which was used to conduct precise brightness measurements of the star.

"The planet was first detected by the Radial-Velocity method, some times called the "wobble method," Henry said. "The planet's motion around the star causes a reflex motion of the star itself. Precise radial-velocity measurements can detect this back-and-forth motion. This can be complicated if the star is magnetically active, i.e., has lots of starspots, similar to the spots on our own Sun. The star's rotation carries these spots into and out of view."

"This can mimic the wobble caused by a planet," he said. "So, precise brightness measurements with another one of our robotic telescopes showed the star to be constant in brightness. This eliminates the starspot false-alarm possibility leaving a revolving planet as the only explanation of the wobbles."

While the latest discovery is significant in its own right, it may carry extra importance for fans of science fiction. In the Star Trek fictional universe HD 26965 is known by an alternative name—40 Eridani A.

According to references in Star Trek publications, this star is said to host the famed planet Vulcan—the home of Mr. Spock, Science Officer on the starship Enterprise. And in 1991, three astronomers confirmed in a letter to Sky & Telescope magazine that Vulcan would most likely orbit 40 Eridani A. Thus, scientists may have just discovered the "real" Vulcan.

An illustration of the real of the newly discovered super-Earth orbiting its star. University of Florida

"Spock served on the starship Enterprise, whose mission was to seek out strange new worlds, a mission shared by the Dharma Planet Survey," Henry said in a statement.

The Dharma Planet Survey is designed to detect and characterize low-mass planets, around nearby Sun-like stars. The ultimate goal is to find potentially habitable, super-Earths which could provide high-priority targets for future space imaging missions. The latest find is the first super-Earth to be detected by the survey.

This article has been updated to include additional comments from Gregory Henry and Jian Ge.