In a recent press conference, astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced that they had discovered the first planet outside of our galaxy. This discovery is a staggering achievement in human history and will surely change how we think about life as we know it. What does this mean? It’s complicated.
A young woman, whom we’ll refer to as Susan, was one of the scientists on this project. We asked her about her discoveries and she obliged us with 10 minutes of uninterrupted monologue. Here are the highlights. Prepare yourself for some intense science talk that might put you in an uncomfortable or even aroused state:
It’s a sphere of metal, carbon and silicon that’s twice the size of Earth. It’s orbiting a young star called NGTS-1 which sits about 600 light years from Earth. The planet itself isn’t what makes this discovery unique – it’s kind of small and has no atmosphere – but the star is only 12 million years old whereas our Sun is 4.5 billion years old and, like most stars of its age, it’s quiet and boring . So this is the first time we’ve been able to find a planet around a young star that isn’t just a big ball of lava. It’s actually possible that life could have evolved on this planet already – something we call the Goldilocks Zone .
Just remember that this planet is 600 light years away. That means, if you could travel at the speed of light for 600 years, you’d be able to reach it. Unfortunately, the most advanced engine we have only allows us to go 0.5% of the speed of light which means that with our current technology it would take us almost 100,000 years to reach this planet. So don’t hold your breath for a visit any time soon.
I’m not exactly sure how we made the discovery but we were looking for planets that orbit small stars and we used telescopes in both Chile and Australia to take photos of the sky every night and look for very small changes in brightness from these stars.
We’ve been looking at this area of the sky for a while now, about two years I think, and we don’t normally find anything so when we saw a dip in the light coming from that star it was a bit of a shock. The planet itself is pretty unremarkable but it has a very tight orbit, I mean it orbits its star in just about 1.3 days which is very close for a planet so that was pretty exciting too.
It looks like metal and rock with no atmosphere… wait, you know what? Let me start this answer again.
Okay. We’ve been receiving data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory for about a year now. A few weeks ago, the team decided to take another look at this data to see if there was anything interesting in it. It turns out that there’s some evidence for this planet orbiting the star but it’s not statistically significant yet. The whole team is incredibly excited though and we’re all rushing to check our findings before they can say they’re not real. We managed to recover some data from the Spitzer Space Telescope as well and that is where we were able to see a light curve of the star itself over time.
What’s even more exciting is that there was a dip in this light curve that coincided with a dip in the X-ray data, which means that there could be another planet orbiting the star and it may even be orbiting in the opposite direction of the first one. The chances that this would happen just by chance is almost zero so we think there’s a really good chance that we’re on to something here.
Why aren’t you rushing back to check your findings right now? We’ve already checked everything about five times and we’re very confident in our results. We’re just waiting for the peer review process to complete. I’m just going over it again right now and will probably do another four or five times before anyone can see it.