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Bad News for Mr. Spock and the Real Planet Vulcan

It is a safe bet that a poll of Star Trek fans of any generation who are asked to name their favorite character of the beloved sci-fi franchise would be topped by Mr. Spock, with no one else even coming close. The half-human half-Vulcan was even in the series pilot while William Shatner’s Captain Kirk was not. A right of passage for many fans was learning to make the Vulcan hand salute while reciting the blessing, “Live long and prosper” – a task much easier than learning Klingon or other Star Trek character idiosyncrasies. Spock’s Vulcan side (providing his pointed ears and impeccable logic) were his most notable characteristics, but his ‘alien’ half was made more real by the fact that his home planet orbited a real star named 40 Eridani A. In 2018, a planet was discovered orbiting 40 Eridani A. To the disappointment of Star Trek fans, it was named 40 Eri b, not Vulcan. (Spoiler alert) Mr. Spock died, as did Leonard Nimoy, who created and owned the original role, but both might have seen the logic in not falling in love with the pseudo-Vulcan too quickly. It turns out 40 Eri b is not a planet at all. Is it a black hole or a death star or something better? 

Can you still do it?

“Directly imaging temperate rocky planets orbiting nearby, Sun-like stars with a 6-m-class IR/O/UV space telescope, recently dubbed the Habitable Worlds Observatory, is a high priority goal of the Astro2020 Decadal Survey. To prepare for future direct imaging surveys, the list of potential targets should be thoroughly vetted to maximize efficiency and scientific yield.”

That doesn’t have the cachet of “These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before!” but it is the mission of “Doppler Constraints on Planetary Companions to Nearby Sun-like Stars: An Archival Radial Velocity Survey of Southern Targets for Proposed NASA Direct Imaging Missions,” a new paper accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal and posted on the preprint server arXiv. Its mission is to identify exoplanets which are good candidates for extraterrestrial life. The number of exoplanets continues to grow as space telescope technology improves, but that new technology is also exposing some holes in the old technology. One of those holes has poked hole in 40 Eri b/Vulcan. 

“Hot as Vulcan, now I understand what that phrase means.”

Dr. McCoy told us a little about the fictional Vulcan in the episode “Amok Time.” It is a Class M planet – habitable by humans and similar life forms – although it is arid and has a thinner atmosphere than Earth. In the episode “The Man Trap,” we learn that Vulcan has no moon. In a Star Trek: Enterprise episode, we learn that 40 Eridani A is a little over 16 light years from Earth – the same distance as the real 40 Eridani A, which is orbited by a binary pair of stars: 40 Eridani B and C. Since we can’t yet send a starship to it, astronomers have analyzed 40 Eridani A using the radial velocity method. The method is based on gravity – as a star and a planet exert gravity on each other, their light shifts around the spectrum. A space object moving towards an observing telescope becomes more blue, while an object moving away becomes more red. This allows exoplanets which cannot be seen to still be detected with a good degree of accuracy. Using the radial velocity method, 40 Eridani A appeared to have a “super Earth” exoplanet about twice the size of Earth and orbiting in the habitable ‘Goldilocks’ zone – making it a real candidate to be a class M planet. It seemed logical that 40 Eridani A had a ‘Vulcan’ … but it is also logical that astronomers using new technology ‘check the math’ on previous discoveries. Unfortunately, the study found an error.

“We present strong evidence that the planet HD26965 b (o2 Eri b, 40 Eri b) reported [in 2018] is not a planet, and is rather caused by stellar activity.”

The error comes from the new evidence that the radial velocity method works well detecting large exoplanets orbiting close to their star, but not so well with smaller exoplanets and planets orbiting longer distances from their star. 40 Eri b’s small size made it questionable – a new check by NASA on the data showed that the radial velocity method had given a ‘false positive’ and the real Vulcan is back to being a fictional planet … one that never had a chance to live at all, let alone prosper.

See also  Don't Tell Me the Red Planet Wasn't Once a Thriving World!
Sorry, Captain … Vulcan was right in front of us a minute ago.

Does this mean we’ll never find a planet Vulcan like Mr. Spock’s home planet? Of course not. The real Mr. Spock went through a number of false starts himself before becoming the iconic character. The role was originally offered to DeForest Kelley, who became Dr. McCoy, and Martin Landau, who had a starring role on “Mission: Impossible” – when Landau left that series, he was replaced by Leonard Nimoy. However, in what has to be the most 40 Eri b-like false start, Nimoy once revealed that Gene Roddenberry’s first choice to play Spock was George Lindsey – whose claim to fame was playing Goober Pyle on “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Mayberry RFD.” This rumor, plus the fact that he turned down Roddenberry’s offer, was confirmed by Lindsey’s close friend, actor Ernest Borgnine, in his autobiography. No matter who played him, Spock’s early existence on the series, like 40 Eri b, was questionable. He was originally supposed to be half-Martian, his skin tone was supposed to be red (not yellow), and Nimoy himself hated the pointed Vulcan ears – a feeling echoed by network executives who thought they made him look satanic. However, by the eight episode the viewers were demanding more Spock and he became the iconic character who truly helped define the series, the movies and the many sequels and variations. 

Could the same thing happen to the ‘Vulcan’ planet 40 Eri b? To paraphrase Dr. McCoy: “How should I know? I’m a writer, not an astronomer.” 

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