HomeScience & TechGoodbye Vulcan Astronomers Debunk Existence of Real-Life Star Trek Planet

Goodbye Vulcan Astronomers Debunk Existence of Real-Life Star Trek Planet

Astronomers have officially debunked the existence of a real-life version of the fictional Vulcan homeworld from Star Trek. Recent studies have shown that signals previously interpreted as signs of a planet orbiting the star 40 Eridani A, or HD 26965, were false positives, likely originating from the star itself.

This marks the fourth paper examining the potential existence of a real-life Vulcan, with the third concluding no exoplanet was present (one study was inconclusive). The findings underscore the need for a more nuanced understanding of star behavior to better identify planetary signals in future analyses.

The initial announcement in 2018 claimed the discovery of an exoplanet, officially named 40 Eridani A b or HD 26965 b, orbiting the star. However, even the discoverers were uncertain about the validity of their findings. The potential exoplanet was detected using radial velocity, a method that measures the gravitational interactions between a star and its orbiting planet. These interactions cause the star to exhibit slight wobbles, detectable as changes in the star’s light.

HD 26965 exhibited changes similar to those expected from radial velocity shifts induced by an exoplanet on a 42-day orbit. However, these changes could also be due to the star’s surface activity as it rotates on its axis. The astronomers could not determine the star’s rotation rate to rule out this possibility. If the rotation rate matched the orbital period, it would indicate the signal was inherent to the star itself.

Subsequent studies did not support the existence of an exoplanet. A 2021 study concluded the signal was a false positive, a 2022 study was inconclusive, and a 2023 study also pointed to a false signal.

Now, a team led by astronomer Abigail Burrows of Dartmouth College has utilized a new instrument with higher precision for measuring radial velocity, not available in 2018. These measurements revealed discrepancies in the star’s light changes from different atmospheric layers compared to the combined signal. If an exoplanet were present, the signal would remain consistent. The inconsistency suggests that the fluctuations are due to phenomena within the star, such as starspots, bright spots, and internal convection, coupled with the star’s 42-day rotation period.

While this may be disappointing news for Star Trek fans, it is a significant advancement for science. The result demonstrates the effectiveness of new tools for revisiting ambiguous detections and confidently identifying their root causes. As we progress into an era of exoplanet discovery, the ability to rule out false positives will be invaluable.

The research has been published in The Astronomical Journal.

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