Updated: Aug 8
US Government | Funds NASA | 30th July 2022 | Virtual Wire
Whether it is the soil beneath our feet, the minerals deep below, the water that seeps through every crevice and corner of this planet, or even the deadly lava that paves the way for a new life.
Mother Earth never fails to spoil its children with a profuse supply of necessities and indulgences. Unfortunately, as the burden of humanity grows, Mother Earth’s soil-encrusted feet continue to wither away, as her luscious locks of trees burn to the ground and her smooth face becomes cluttered with prodigious municipal pimples.
The weight of humanity’s impact can be felt on every single pound of Earth, whether it is massive littering and polluting, wide-scale deforestation, or our sedulous ignorance of the immense munificence that Mother Earth constantly rewards us with. As a result, Mother Earth’s atmosphere has turned livid and is raining fire in retribution for humanity’s vicious betrayal, the fire that will eventually expunge humanity from the face of the Earth. Although the damage is seemingly irreversible at this point, humanity is left with no option but to flee from Mother Earth’s wrath and colonize a new, more hospitable planet. However, there are no other planets in our current star system that could support the exigencies of human life, so how could we possibly navigate our ship to a completely new star system and expect to find a hospitable planet? That is where NASA’s massive databank of 5,000 exoplanets come into place, and these exoplanets play a pivotal role in humanity’s knowledge of the universe and future in it.
The History Of Exoplanets
Before we dive into the rich history of exoplanet exploration, we must first use NASA’s definition to understand that exoplanets refer to “any planet beyond our solar system.” Although it may seem that the entire history of exoplanets revolves around humanity’s preeminent space organization, NASA, the truth is that its history dates back several centuries. It all began with the 16th-century Italian philosopher, Giordano Bruno, who was most famous for suggesting that the universe was infinite with multiple other star systems, similar to our very own solar system. With this philosophy, he engendered the genesis of exoplanet exploration and paved the way for humanity’s journey into the stars. However, Bruno would eventually be arrested and endure a seven-year-long trial, and, due to his intense fidelity towards his philosophical convictions, he was sentenced to death “as an impenitent and pertinacious heretic.” Although Bruno left a remarkable footprint on humanity’s quest into the stars, the search for exoplanets would not receive its inception until 1855, when Captain William S. Jacob, seemingly, made one of the earliest exoplanet discoveries.
During the 19th century, Captain William Jacob served as the director for the Madras Observatory in Chennai, where he would study the motion of the 70 Ophiuchi binary star system that had been cataloged by William Herschel in 1781. After scrutinizing the patterns in the movement of the stars and conducting a few calculations, he uncovered an anomaly that suggested the presence of an exoplanet orbiting the system. A century later, Thomas See corroborated Jacob’s discovery and supplemented his theory with a proposed 36 year orbital period of the supposed planet around one of the stars. In spite of the vast reserves of evidence that the two astronomers possessed, the existence of such a planet was ultimately confuted as more advanced technology and well-reasoned arguments declared the discovery to be false.
Along with the controversy over Adriaan Van Maanen’s potential spotting of an exoplanet in 1917, a 1984 discovery of the star Beta Pectoris, using the du Pont telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, only managed to capture a disk of dust and gas. The Hubble Space Telescope was launched on April 23, 1990, and, 32 years later, it has become one of NASA’s most revered achievements, aside from placing a man on the moon. Indeed, NASA would never have been close to celebrating its 5,000th exoplanet discovery, on March 21, 2022, without the 4,000+ exoplanets discovered by Hubble. In addition, Hubble was also responsible for determining the age of the universe (13.7 billion years old), the center of galaxies (supermassive black holes), how planets form, extrasolar organic material, dark energy, and plutonian moons. To this day, NASA accredits the world’s first exoplanet discovery to Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail in January of 1992, who discovered 2 rocky planets orbiting a pulsar in the constellation Virgo.
Unfortunately, scientists concluded that, because the planets were being perpetually inundated with radiation from a dead neutron star, life would be inhospitable. Although Wolszczan and Frail were the first scientists to receive the high prestige of being humanity’s first to discover an exoplanet, Didier Queloz and Michael Mayor were the first to discover an exoplanet that revolved around the traditional Sun-like star that we are accustomed to. However, scientists were completely bemused when they learned that the planet’s proximity to the star was close enough to graze it, but now this phenomenon has become common and is nicknamed a “roaster.”
Importance of Exoplanets
Of the 5,000 exoplanets discovered by NASA, most of them originate from star systems within the Milky Way, with some even being rogue planets that orbit the galactic center without being fettered by a star’s gravitational pull. Much like the diversity of Mother Earth, the Milky Way offers a breadth of planets in different shapes, sizes, and compositions. However, one of the prominent reasons behind exoplanet exploration has been to search for planets within the habitable zone, a zone in which the conditions of the planet are sufficient to support living, breathing humans. This search for habitable exoplanets all began on April 4, 2001, when Geneva University announced the discovery of a planet, named HD 28185 b, that orbits its star at about the same distance as Earth orbits the Sun and is approximately 6 times the size of Jupiter. Currently, NASA’s primary objective for exoplanet exploration is to detect any signal of life and thereby change humanity’s entire scope of the universe. Additionally, NASA also notes that the scrutinization of exoplanets and their unique qualities could broaden humanity’s knowledge of planets. However, many scientists also realize that humanity will eventually need to leave the Earth after life becomes unsustainable, so it is of paramount importance that we begin the search for our new home.
Top 5 Superhabitable Exoplanets
Among the variety of planets to travel, the intergalactic travel launchpad will likely have Proxima Centauri B listed as its cheapest flight to an exoplanet. Proxima Centauri B has become one of the more prominent exoplanets in the scientific community due to its relatively close proximity of 4.24 light years and Earth-like attributes that deem it as a supervalent candidate for humanity’s next home. The planet is classified as Super Earth with a mass of 1.27 Earths and a slightly larger radius. Although the presence of liquid water has not been confirmed, scientists are almost certain that both liquid water exists, and that the planet will be a rocky, terrestrial planet like Earth, due to its mass. Due to a lack of information on the planet, the only substantial disparity between Earth and Proxima Centauri B seems to be that one year on the exoplanet is equivalent to approximately 11 days on Earth. Overall, Proxima Centauri B’s Earth-like qualities and distance from Earth are likely to make it a promising candidate for humanity’s next home.
Teegarden b will likely be one of the best exoplanet discoveries that scientists will ever find, considering that it has a rating of 95% on the Earth Similarity Index. One of the prominent factors behind this rating is the 32oF to 122oF. Additionally, the planet has essentially the samemass and size of Earth, as NASA describes its mass to be 1.05 Earths and its radius to be 1.02 Earths. However, the only drastic discrepancy between Earth and Teegarden b happens to be the exoplanet’s orbital period of 5 days, meaning that 1 week on Earth equates to more than a year on Teegarden b. Wolf 1061 c is another possible candidate, if Teegarden B somehow becomes human intolerant and vomits us back into space since it only happens to be 13.8 light years away from Earth. Unfortunately, one of the substantial hurdles in its path is its soul-crushing mass of 3.41 Earths, so we could only step foot on the planet if there was a magical space suit to resist the immense strength of the planet’s gravitational forces.
Although the planet is estimated to be 4.3 times the size of Earth, it is likely that vast areas of the planet will be inhabitable since it does not spin; therefore, one side will always be cold and one side will always be hot. Ultimately, Wolf 1061c will require a multitude of technological advances before humans will be able to even set foot on the planet, but, until then, the planet will always be lurking near us. With Wolf 1061 c's devastating gravity, it is likely that we will need to travel 16 light years in order to land on the surface of Gliese 832c, a planet that has a mass of only 5.4 Earths. However, relinquishing any hopes of establishing a colony on GJ 832c would be a devastation to humanity, since we would be giving up a planet with space for 5 times as many humans and an orbital period that is remarkably similar to that of Earth’s orbital period: 36 days. In general, Gliese 832c seems to be one of the less desirable exoplanets for humans to relocate to, especially considering Proxima Centauri B’s close proximity to Earth and the numerous Earth-like attributes it possesses.
Although this next planet may be at the bottom of this list, this Kepler Object of Interest (KOI) has been deemed as a planet with conditions that are even more conducive to the sustenance of life than Earth itself. KOI 5725.01 is a 5.5 billion-year-old planet with a diameter of 1.8 to 2.4 times that of Earth, and its temperature is only approximately 4.3o F less than Earth’s average temperature. However, the only factor that brings this exoplanet to the bottom of the list is its jaw-dropping distance of 2,965 light years away from Earth. Unfortunately, it seems as though the perfect planet to host the human population is stranded on the other side of the galaxy.