June 27, 2002

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if E.T. was really out there? Okay so I grew up watching Star Trek (I do a pretty good imitation of Scottie) and all those other science fiction programs that have conditioned us with images of space creatures and races of humanoids from other planets. It's all science fiction, a creation of some wild imaginations. While these different species we see on these programs may be pretty far fetched (let's hope there are no Jamaican speaking underwater nuisances like JaJa Binks of Star Wars fame) the idea of life on other planets is becoming more and more likely. We have started our space tourism industry - have you heard Cindy Crawford is interested in a flight to the space station, but only if it last a week or less - she has to get back to the kids? I suspect the Russian cosmonauts would much rather have this super model on board as opposed to Lance Bass of NSYNC fame, who currently is scheduled to be the third paid customer for a trip to the space station.

Last week astronomers discovered eight more planets located outside of our solar system, bringing the total to nearly 100 planets beyond the nine little ones in our neighborhood we grew up learning about. Strictly speaking in terms of odds, the more planets out there means the greater likelihood that at least one could sustain life forms of some sort or other.

Up to this point the bulk of the discoveries have been planets, which have not shown even remote chance of sustaining life. That seems to be what has caused the stir with the most recent discovery, a mammoth planet similar in size to Jupiter, located more than 50 light years away (anyone else find it hard to realize that the picture - light waves - our astronomers are looking at actually originated at the planet 50 years ago?) in orbit around a star named Gliese 777A. While the size, dwarfs our own little world here, this planet is circling it's star sun in a circular pattern. Up to this point, most of the planets that have been identified have been discovered in elliptical orbits, meaning the planet comes much closer to the sun at one end of the orbit and then goes much further away at the other end. If Earth did this for example we would have 300-degree temperatures in the summer and 300 degrees below zero weather in the winter. That might be a little uncomfortable.

Unfortunately the orbit style seems to be the only similarity. While this planet doesn't hold much hope for holding life, it does offer the first match as far as orbit types. Astronomers and scientists expect to begin locating planets, similar in size to Earth within the decade as technological advances are made in instruments to locate these smaller bodies. This likely will greatly increase the number of planets that can be seen by scientists, again boosting the odds of finding Earth #2. That's where the search is focused, as scientists are convinced that a similar planet to our homeland is the key to finding new life.

So one of 100 planets located thus far has a similar orbit type to ours. Now all we need to do is find a planet that not only fits the orbit pattern, but that is at a similar distance from its sun to generate livable temperatures. Lets hope it's a little further away in summer and closer in winter so we simply have 50-70 degree weather year round. Call Las Vegas book makers and they would tell you that a one in 100 shot combined with say another one in 100 shot makes for one in 100,000 odds to find this perfect planet. So it's 100 down, 99,900 more to find until we can start packing. If it cost the world's first two space tourists $20 million each to fly to the space station and back, I wonder what a trip like this would cost? Do you suppose these guys got frequent flyer miles good for the shuttle?

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