Last week, a group a scientists announced at a conference in France that they have discovered a trio of super-Earths a relatively short distance from our solar system. This is exciting news for the astronomy community, who pretty much have to kill one another in cold blood to make headlines these days—and even then it would need to be fairly grisly. Regardless, the discovery is sure to raise intriguing questions. We here at AN wanted to take a few moments to address some of them.
Why are these planets noteworthy? They are comparable in size to Earth, orbiting a star that is comparable in size to the sun—potentially recreating conditions needed to sustain life.
Why do they call them super-Earths? One is 4.2 times the size of our planet, another is 6.7 times the size. The largest is 9.4 times as big as the Earth, or approximately the size of Texas. Also, anyone who were to set foot on their surfaces would be granted awesome powers. (Awesome in the classical sense, not the "cheese fries are awesome" sense. Though let us not prevaricate: Cheese fries are definitely awesome.)
Wait, didn't you just say they were "comparable in size to Earth?" 9.4 times bigger than Earth is still a hell of a lot smaller than gas giants like Jupiter, smart-ass.
How were the planets found? They are too far away to detect by standard means, so their presence must be deduced by measuring the amount of stellar wobble caused by the planets' gravitational pull, which can be done using spectographic analysis of radial veloci—
You can just say "magic," it's okay. They were found using magic.
Could we ever travel to these worlds? The super-Earths are 42 light years away. While in cosmological terms this is not very far, it amounts to 252 trillion miles, or 1.68 trillion times the length of New Jersey. Adjusting for traffic and construction on the Turnpike, the time required to traverse such a distance can mathematically be labeled "forever."
What is the likelihood that the three super-Earths are themed, and what are the probable themes? Estimates vary, but the consensus among astronomers is that there is a 30%-45% chance the planets are themed. If so, one would almost certainly be post-apocalyptic, and one utopian. The third would likely be medieval, Western, vampire, or some sort of historical what-if planet. (i.e. What if the Nazis had won WWII, what if Napoleon had never been born, what if Confucius had Tourette's Syndrome, etc.)
Who stands to gain the most from this discovery? Cubs fans, without question. The three planets all orbit their star very quickly, with the fastest one completing a full year in just 4 days. At that rate, the Cubs won the World Series a brisk 13.15 months ago. Experts agree that this means the fastest planet is probably the post-apocalyptic one.
Who stands to lose the most? The real estate market. Already reeling from the mortgage crisis, the housing market stands to take a further hit from the addition of millions upon millions of unsold acres. Though the planets were only announced a week ago, real estate agents are aggressively advertising potential properties: "Up and coming location, secluded area, never lived in, exposed brick."
How long before we totally screw up these planets too? Twenty years, tops.
What is it like to go to an astronomy conference in France? Probably pretty sweet.