Saturday, August 24, 2019

Space Opera in Real Life

( Image credit: PHL@UPR Arecibo (, ESA/Hubble, NASA.)

This morning I came across a science news story suggesting that some extrasolar planets could not only support life, but might do so even better than our own lively, teeming Earth.


Not surprised? After all, distant planets that support not only life, but human life, have been a staple of science fiction ever since astronomers ruined Martian canals and Venusian tropical rain forests for science fiction writers. But the notion has now progressed from wishful thinking to, well, possible-if-not-settled science. In my lifetime.

In 1989 astronomers said the the observed changes in velocity of Gamma Cephei were "consistent" with the existence of an orbiting planet. But "consistent with" is a long way from "definitely exists," and other events of 1989 overshadowed this weak evidence for most of us. (For the infants among us: we were busy watching the Soviet Union crumbling and the Berlin Wall coming down.)

Indirect detection methods strongly suggested (some people say, confirmed) the existence of a handful of other planets, but I think it was ten years before anyone saw one (transiting its parent star) and longer still before one was directly imaged. And that was a gas giant -- not a friendly neighborhood for life, or at least for any kind of life that we would recognize.

Many more extrasolar planets have been discovered since then. We've been able to make spectral analyses of some planets' atmospheres, and at least one was believed to contain an organic molecule. That would have been, oh, ten years ago? Around the same time, optical telescopes were able to image a few planets directly. As I recall, none of them were places you'd want to live, but they fueled speculation that such places might exist outside the solar system.

Many more planets have been discovered since then, some believed to fall within the habitable zone of their stars, some believed to have water.

So this paper isn't exactly a scientific breakthrough; at most, it represents the culmination of a lengthy process of deduction and discovery that has taken place over the last 30 years. But I'm excited. Space Opera lives! The Evil Space Princess and the Genocidal Warlord have somewhere to set their feet!

Now all we have to do is conquer that pesky little problem of traveling faster than the speed of light.

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