Last Wednesday, scientists hit the jackpot in their quest to find other planets where we could live. In the morning, there was the discovery of this new planet way out there in the Milky Way that we’d never noticed before.
It’s so new, this planet, that it doesn’t have a name yet. But it is causing great excitement in the scientific world. It fits perfectly into the parameters described in the “Goldilocks” legend where the porridge (the planet) is not too hot and not too cold, where there is an atmosphere that could support life, where there might be water to drink and some sort of air to breathe and which might have on it aliens we can talk to, have a drink with and in general commiserate with about the meaning of life. What’s it like on your planet? Here’s what it’s like on our planet.
The Earth has a diameter of 5,280 miles. This new planet has a diameter about 10 percent wider, according to Thomas Barclay of NASA’s Ames Research Center, a member of the team who found the planet and he has said he intends to name the planet later. He announced the discovery that morning at the annual “Search for Life Beyond the Solar System Conference,” and he gave a few details, but said a much broader description of it would soon appear in a paper that will be published shortly.
The other thing that happened in the scientific world this month was the revelation that on a moon of Saturn in our very own solar system, there is a lake about the size of Lake Michigan filled with water, water vapor, nitrogen, methane, CO2 and other chemicals that support life. How do we know this? The spaceship Cassini has been orbiting Enceladus, this moon, after photos showed some pretty strange eruptions going on there. And it has now reported on some of the data it has collected.
How could we have overlooked a lake the size of Lake Michigan until now? The moon is entirely covered with ice 25’ thick. This lake is under this ice, invisible to anyone on Earth heretofore. What was noticed some years ago by Cassini, however, was that on the south pole of this moon, there are great cracks in the ice and periodically, enormous geysers of some sort of liquid shoots up and out from between these cracks, goes as high as 125 miles, then either dissipates in the atmosphere there or turns to snow to sprinkle back down onto the surface of the ice.
Having found this, Cassini was instructed to photograph it and collect data on it to try to figure out where it was coming from. Know how ice cubes float in water? What astronomers have found is that the ice on the moon is floating at the south pole on this lake of water, and the lake of water under there is on top of the core of the moon, which is largely made of the metal silicate.
It is really interesting how they figured this out. The south pole of this moon has a kind of dent in it, as if it were hit by a car or something. No one knows the cause of this, but where the dent is there is less gravity. The less gravity has been found to be more than could be caused by the dent. And what they think now is that another moon of Saturn named Dione, is close to this moon and is exerting a pull that tends to yank at the ice down there by the pole and make it pull away from the core. This causes heat. The heat melts where the ice is pulled away. And that melt is what they believe to be Lake Michigan. It’s 300 degrees below zero on the surface of Enceladus. But down there under the ice, they now think it might be nice and warm and possibly supporting aliens.
Personally, I am trying to decide which would be a better place to go to when the Earth becomes uninhabitable because of global warming.
So let’s compare the two.
Enceladus is really a very small moon. It is just 310 miles in diameter. There are at least 54 other moons orbiting Saturn, which is an immense planet about 100 times larger than the Earth.
Three hundred and ten miles diameter means it’s just 1,000 miles in circumference, so you could fly in a 777 for just three hours and land at an airport right where you started from.
Many people like small places. I’m one of them. I like places that you can drive a few hours—or in this case just 25 hours—and you are all the way around. So I consider it a plus.
The fact that it is under an enormous sheet of ice 25 miles thick, however, is a minus. It’s all happening in the space in there between the ice and the lake, made by that neighboring moon’s exertions in trying to peel off a bit of the ice. Sounds pretty touchy if you see what I mean, things creaking and groaning as they pull this way and that. Also, and this is the biggest minus, you don’t see the sun. You’re under there with the, uh, whatever they are, and they probably don’t know all about what else is out there above the ice sheet. They not only don’t know about the sun, they don’t know about the other moons or this gigantic planet Saturn looming nearby or even about the giant geyser of water shooting out from the bottom there. It would be an exhilarating thing to be able to tell them about it.
Meanwhile, the other planet just discovered far away is almost exactly the size of the earth and is in a zone where there is water. It is one of at least six planets that orbit around an M1 Red Dwarf sun.
We don’t yet know which M1 Red Dwarf it is, but we do know about them as a species. Red Dwarfs are very popular in the universe. Red Dwarfs make up about 70% of the stars in the galaxy. They are dimmer than our sun, and they also are smaller. To circle a Red Dwarf in this cozy manner, a planet would have to be even closer to it than our planet Mercury, our first planet, is to our sun. Still, the Red Dwarf would be a bit of a dim bulb. Though it would be warm enough and pleasant enough to walk around there on that planet and enjoy the craters and great plains and rivers (from the water) and oceans there.
I like the idea that things might be pretty okay on this planet. The real downer, however, unless you really think about it, is that it is so far away. Saturn is about ten years away by rocket ship. But to get to this planet would take trillions of years. And I for one don’t have that kind of time. I seriously doubt if I’ll even be alive in a trillion years.
But here’s something else to think about. We seem to be on the way to developing the “beam” where we step into a glass tube and a button is pushed, our molecules are disassembled and then almost immediately re-assembled at the destination which is very carefully plotted out with coordinates ahead of time. The Trekkies are working on this.
So I’ll say this: Overall, I think that being beamed somewhere with the snap of your fingers is lots less annoying and boring than a 10-year voyage to Saturn. So before they create the beam, I guess I’d go with Saturn if I had to make a decision.
But after the invention, it would be that planet what’s-its-name, hands down. That’s what I think, anyway.