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Issues of the Day An Earthly Neighbor in Alpha Centauri

The The New York Times reported this week that a team led by Xavier Dumusque, a graduate student at the Geneva Observatory, has made a remarkable discovery: They found an earth-sized planet in a solar system that is the nearest neighbor to our own; the exoplanet (a planet outside our own solar system) is about as close as one can be to Earth.

The orb is not exactly a hop-skip-and jump away: It is forty trillion kilometers, or 4.4 light-years from here. There is little chance that it supports life: its surface temperature is estimated at 650 degrees Celsius. What is truly noteworthy about the discovery is that is its similar in size to our own and positioned approximately as far from its solar center as we are from the Sun.


Conceivably, it is close enough to us to be visited, some day, by a probe sent from Earth. And while this particular planet is unlikely to sustain life, it is possible that companion planets in its system could.


According to The Economist, since the first exoplanet was discovered in 1992,  there are currently “843 confirmed and another couple of thousand probables” such entities. The newly discovered planet, whose existence still has to be confirmed under the scrutiny of the scientific community, was detected using the wobble method, whereby fluctuations in the gravitational field surrounding a sun suggest the existence of another body.

The solar system in which the planet was found is centered on the star known as Alpha Centauri B, which is one of a trio of stars: Alpha Centauri A and Apha Centauri B, which circle each other in close proximity and Proxima Centauri, which orbits its companion suns at a distance of  1.63 trillion kilometers.

That a planet so near to Earth has presumably been discovered arouses interest, but to my thinking the perennial human search for life elsewhere in the heavens is more encouraged by findings made last February concerning Planet GJ1214b, a galactic neighbor of ours, which is a mere forty light years away from earth. reports
that Planet GJ1214b is 2.7 times the diameter of earth and weighs about seven times as much, orbits its star (a red dwarf) once every 38 hours and has an average temperature of 232 degrees Centigrade.

Though hot, that’s a heck of a lot more congenial than  the earth-sized planet unveiled this week. And with water, in fact it is almost entirely water (albeit, due to high pressure, in a form much different than those we know on Earth), it has an element necessary to support life.


Though neither of these planets are candidates for the “we’ve found buddies out there” designation, what their discovery suggests is that  in the cosmic vastness we may not be as alone, or so accidental, as is often supposed.       

I wrote a poem, The Conjugality of Hydrogen and Oxygen, about the salience of Planet GJ1214b early this year. The poem appeared in the Voices Anthology 2012. I have also placed here, on the poetry page of my website.  



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