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Exoplanets

I’ve long been fascinated by space travel. I think I was first turned onto the idea back around 1957 with one of the first television shows I remember watching. “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger” was a kind of space policeman who would blast off from Earth and travel to other heavenly bodies where wicked aliens needed to be taken care of. There was no explanation as to where these worlds were, or how it was that the aliens always spoke English. I think the only concession to science was that Rocky’s spaceship looked like a German V-2 rocket which was also the prototype for the Redstone rocket that allowed Alan Shepard to become the first American in space in 1961. By that time I was hooked on space travel and was riveted to the TV set as Shepard was launched into his suborbital flight.

Then in 1965 along came Lost in Space, a television series that actually had smidgens of science. The plot centered around a family who set out from an overpopulated Earth to colonize a planet circling the star Alpha Centauri. At the time the show was produced no planets outside the ones that orbit our sun had been discovered. But the show was actually set in 1997, which is interesting because the first planeting orbiting a sun other than our own was discovered in 1995. More than 300 “exoplanets” as they are called have been discovered since. The show also paid some attention to the huge distances involved in space travel by having the travelers be frozen in some sort of state of suspended animation, only to be reanimated when approaching their target which had been chosen because space probes had revealed that the planet possessed ideal conditions for human life.

Lost in Space overlapped with the most successful of the TV science fiction shows which of course was Star Trek, debuting in 1966. The show was set in the twenty-third century so as to allow for ample passage of time to have developed the scientific wonders like phasers, beamers and travel at warp speed. The latter was necessary because it allowed travel faster than the speed of light which would be needed to travel to the diverse planets visited by Captain Kirk and his crew. Watching all these shows was great fun. And still is. But how far are they from reality? Unfortunately very, very far. That’s because the distance that would have to be travelled to get to a planet outside our solar system is almost unimaginable. Tremendous publicity was given this year to the discovery of the first planet, Kepler-186f, that may be sort of a cousin to Earth because it may have liquid water. How far is it? About 490 light years away. So when we see Kepler-186f we are really seeing that planet as it was 490 years ago, that is how long it took for the light to reach us. And how far have we travelled in space? We have made it to the moon. That is 1.2 light seconds away! So visiting other planets or being visited by aliens that may be out there remains firmly entrenched in science fiction.

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