Last week, the discovery of a new exoplanet orbiting the star HD26965, also known as 40 Eridani A, made headlines for a pretty unusual reason—the planet’s mention in “Star Trek” as Spock’s home planet, Vulcan.
Unlike some other science fiction series, “Star Trek” utilizes some factual locations in its setting in order to make connections to our real world, and make it more believable as our future.
“‘Star Trek’ is a fictional universe, but it’s supposed to be about the future of humanity,” said Dr. Bruce Finklea, UM Assistant Professor of mass communication. Finklea is currently teaching a class on the cultural significance of “Star Trek” wherein students discuss the franchise’s messages and influence.
When “Star Trek” was first made in the 1960s, there was no way of knowing whether HD26965 had any exoplanets at all, especially not any habitable ones. The exoplanet was discovered by a team of astronomers, led by University of Florida astronomy professor Jian Ge, using the Dharma Endowment Foundation Telescope.
“Something that was dreamed up 50 years ago has actually turned out to be true,” said Finklea.
The exoplanet is located just inside HD 26965’s habitable zone, meaning that the planet could have liquid water and potentially life. According to the researchers who discovered the planet, its surface is likely to be very hot, dry and difficult to live on—much like the surface of “Star Trek’s” Vulcan whose humanoid inhabitants reside primarily in caves.
Currently, the exoplanet is being referred to as HD 26965b, according to International Astronomical Union naming guidelines, but Ge has stated that the research team will contact the Astronomical Union to have the planet officially named Vulcan.
This idea has been met with enthusiasm from scientists and fans alike on social media. Of course, this is partly due to the large overlap between the two groups.
“There are so many scientists that credit ‘Star Trek’ with inspiring them to go into their fields,” said Finklea.
When or whether the planet will be officially named Vulcan is still unannounced, but, for now, “Star Trek” fans will still have the satisfaction of being able to spot HD 26965b on a clear night and know that thanks to the show’s popularity and influence, humans are being inspired to explore the stars with some amazing results.