The planets have fascinated astronomers and other scientists for generations, going back to when man first gazed skyward and wondered what — if anything — the heavens held. A central preoccupation of these scientists has been: does life exist on any planet or star other than Earth?
Today, that preoccupation has taken on new urgency, because the Earth is being strained by pollution and overcrowding. And so these scientists now look to the heavens and ask whether they could sustain us, should Earth ever fall prey to destruction? Is there any evidence that life — life as we understand it as organic beings — could be sustained elsewhere, in an entirely new and different solar system?
It sounds rather like the premise of a science fiction novel, but this is a very real question recently pondered by the astronomer and astrophysicist Edward Guinan, an expert from Villanova University in Pennsylvania, and presented to an eager audience at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Hawaii, at the beginning of January. Guinan and his team have been surveying the stars, and have concluded that yes, just possibly, there is a star out there that could sustain life.
A key factor in that equation is whether water can “live” on any planet other than Earth; after all, water is vital to all life. After much research into what scientists call “orange dwarf stars,” scientists have concluded that this type may indeed be able to sustain life. Just as the sun allows life on Earth, so, science suggests, perhaps these stars can sustain organic matter.
These stars have been nicknamed “Goldilocks stars,” after the famous fairy tale, in which the titular character has porridge that is “not too hot, not to cold, but just right.” And so must the planet or star be to allow man to exist; the temperature must be just right to host living organisms.
“Goldilocks stars are the ‘sweet spot’,” Guinan said in the study, “with properties intermediate between the rarer, more luminescent but shorter lived stars. The K stars, especially the warmer ones, have the best of all worlds. If you are looking for planets with habitability, the abundance of K stars pump up your chances of finding life.” Guinan and his colleagues have been involved in studying these and other stars for 30 years.
When Guinan presented his findings to the Society, he expressed optimism about one star in particular, named the Kepler -442. He said, “The Kepler 442 is noteworthy in that this star hosts what is considered one of the best Goldilocks planets — Kepler 442B, a rocky planet that is a little more than twice Earth’s mass. So the Kepler 442 system is a Goldilocks planet hosted by a Goldilocks star!”
Does this mean that we are in imminent reach of finding an alternative home, should the need arise one day? Alas, no, as we as yet do not have the technical expertise to reach those systems, let alone set up environments that can promote human life.
But these astronomers and scientists are not about to stop looking, and with their knowledge and constant attention to the heavens, they one day may find an alternative to life on Earth. They may even find that life, or at least organisms, already exist “out there,” where right now, no man can go.
But the search for a “habitable zone” continues, and it is no doubt teams like the one led by Guinan that will, one day, find out whether space offers a new beginning for man. The question is — will man learn lessons from Earth’s decay, and take care to avoid them if given the opportunity to begin again on a ‘new Eden?’ That, of course, remains to be seen.