You may have noticed that one of Google’s Doodles a while back had a short little GIF about the discovery of seven Earth-sized exoplanets. 40 light years away, seven exoplanets (planets that orbit stars outside our solar system) are orbiting a star 200 times cooler than our sun. These seven celestial bodies pose many interesting questions for the scientific community, and are a light at the end of the tunnel for scientists who have been searching for exoplanets with these conditions. Now, while that’s all well and good, most people probably looked at an article or two, said, “huh, that’s pretty neat,” and went back to surfing the web. It’s easy to see these grand discoveries in scientific fields as something out of reach for the normal person, but these planets are no such thing. They represent many possibilities for the human race, and may be closer than you think.
After the celebration settled down from the initial discovery, the first point was raised: “Are they habitable?” The short answer is: well, kinda. Three of the seven planets are located within the “Goldilocks Zone.” This is a section of space a certain distance from the central star in a solar system that could potentially support life. This sounds great, but further testing must be done. For instance, Venus and Mars are both considered to be within our solar system’s Goldilocks Zone, but due to their atmospheres they do not support the proper habitable conditions for humans (unless you find acid rain and a lack of oxygen habitable).
The other elephant in the room at the “We-just found-seven-potentially-habitable-planets” party is the question of, “How do we get there?” Most humans in history have spent their lives solidly anchored beneath the exosphere. Beyond a few satellites, rovers, and the occasional actor, we haven’t even sent many things beyond the orbit of our moon. How, then, do we expect to be able to traverse the 40 light year gap to these planets with people who live to tell the tale? The answer is microwaves. NASA has been testing an experimental EM drive that creates propulsion from electricity – and nothing else. I don’t remember a whole lot from physics, but I’m pretty sure you can’t make something from nothing. Scientists believe its the next step towards “warp drive” technology, and could propel humans to other planets within our solar system and beyond.
Cool, they may be habitable; cool, we might be able to get there – but why should we care? Well, aside from bragging rights of being able to say you stepped on the first habitable planet outside our solar system, there are plenty of reasons. There are currently approximately 7.5 billion people on Earth right now, and that number shows no sign of decreasing any time soon. Corporations are polluting waterways and the atmosphere with toxins that are slowly destroying our natural ecosystems. We are consistently using more and more resources than the Earth can give back. Eventually, we are going to need to look starward to find a new home for humanity, and these exoplanets are looking as tantalizing as a cheap apartment 10-minutes from campus with no noisy neighbors.
Depending on the advancements of technology, we could see travel to these exoplanets potentially within our lifetimes. With incredible new discoveries happening every day, we are very close to breaking through to the next great technological boom. I feel like these planets are the physical goal we needed to fixate on and say, “We’re going to get there.” In the 60’s, we put a man on the moon. Wouldn’t you want to see someone land among the stars?