A new planet

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A new habitable planet discovered? According to scinature.com, a nearby exoplanet (a planet outside our solar system) orbiting within the habitable zone of a star is just 4.2 light years from Earth. The article stated that the planet may be home to a vast ocean. The planet has been named “Proxima,” and is said to be 1.3 times the size of earth with a red sun.

A new study suggests that Proxima might be able to support life and that the exoplanet could contain water. “The major message from our simulations is that there’s a decent chance that the planet would be habitable,” Anthony Del Genio, a planetary scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told LiveScience.

In a study published in Astrobiology, researchers ran what they said were the first climate simulations with a “dynamic ocean.” Researchers said that the planet is “thought to be tidally locked with its star, Proxima Centauri, meaning it would have a permanent dayside and nightside. There are all sorts of other “findings” that make for interesting readings. The scinature.com article also has a rendering of the planet seen from space and another of the planet’s surface as seen from the ground.

All this conjures up dreams of galactic space travel and the possibility of life on other planets. Maybe, one might think, that life on Proxima would explain UFO’s and support the notion that interplanetary visitors were the ones responsible for Stonehenge, the Pyramids, and other mysteries as discussed on TV learning channels.

How far away is 4.2 light years. It doesn’t sound like a long way off. But the distance is actually  24,689,699,219,682.11 miles. That’s over 24 TRILLION miles. And how long would it take to travel this distance? Remember that there’s no such thing as “warp drive,” hyper-drive,” “spore drive,” “wormhole travel,” or any of that other sci-fi stuff. And, even though some are saying that warp drive is possible, it isn’t a reality in the present era.

So, with modern space technology, the time it would take to travel to Proxima, if it even exists at all, would be 6,300 YEARS. The New Horizons space probe sent to Pluto was, at launch, estimated to take 9 years, 5 months, and 11 days. Whenever a manned spacecraft leaves Earth for Mars, the journey will take 7 months one-way. Six thousand years ago, the plow was just being invented. Go 300 years beyond that and that’s how long it would take to get to Proxima.  It’s just not do-able.

As far as I am personally concerned, such distance puts to rest the idea that UFO’s are alien visitors. UFO abduction? Didn’t happen. Ancient aliens who aided mankind in civilization? Poppycock. Alien invasions? Don’t lose any sleep over it.

And about the discovery and artist’s renderings of Proxima, Larry Licata wrote and expressed this opinion about Proxima: “I always have to laugh at these proclamations. The “picture” of the exoplanet is just a hypothetical illustration as no such planet can be visually seen at that distance. The only evidence of such a planet is probably based on the transit method (transit photometry) which measures the minuscule drop in observed light from the exoplanet’s parent star when it passes in front of said star. It is amazing how ‘scientists’ show such pictures making many think it is actually a photograph of the exoplanet.”

So Proxima may not even be there at all! Trust the science? When I was in high school and college, we were told with great authority that Pluto was a dead planet. No atmosphere, no geologic activity, and no moons. Well, that simply wasn’t true at all.

In a release by NASA, about the New Horizons project, we read this about the top ten surprises:

New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, lists the mission’s most surprising and amazing findings from Pluto (so far):

  The complexity of Pluto and its satellites is far beyond what we expected.

• The degree of current activity on Pluto’s surface and the youth of some surfaces on Pluto are simply astounding.

• Pluto’s atmospheric hazes and lower-than-predicted atmospheric escape rate upended all of the pre-flyby models.

• Charon’s enormous equatorial extensional tectonic belt hints at the freezing of a former water ice ocean inside Charon in the distant past. Other evidence found by New Horizons indicates Pluto could well have an internal water-ice ocean today.

• All of Pluto’s moons that can be age-dated by surface craters have the same, ancient age — adding weight to the theory that they were formed together in a single collision between Pluto and another planet in the Kuiper Belt long ago.

• Charon’s dark, red polar cap is unprecedented in the solar system and may be the result of atmospheric gases that escaped Pluto and then accreted on Charon’s surface.

• Pluto’s vast 1,000-kilometer-wide heart-shaped nitrogen glacier (informally called Sputnik Planum) that New Horizons discovered is the largest known glacier in the solar system.

• Pluto shows evidence of vast changes in atmospheric pressure and, possibly, past presence of running or standing liquid volatiles on its surface – something only seen elsewhere on Earth, Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan in our solar system.

• The lack of additional Pluto satellites beyond what was discovered before New Horizons was unexpected.

• Pluto’s atmosphere is blue. Who knew?

One scientist said, after receiving the New Horizons data, “We are going to have to question everything we’ve ever thought about Pluto.” So, as additional knowledge becomes available, we find that we could not trust the previous science after all.

And I would ask about all of this, “To what end?” Even if Mars and the moon are colonized, only a few people will ever live there. Antarctica is much more hospitable than Mars, yet only 1,106 people actually live there and that’s on our planet. Much is made about the speculation that Mars may, another unproven theory, hold fossilized bacteria. But we have a planet literally teeming with life in, literally, everyplace. Is that not far more wondrous?

And we don’t even know for certain that the stars that we see at night are still there! The farthest star visible to the naked eye is designated V762 Cas and is 16,000 light years away. The farthest star ever located with the Hubble telescope is 9 billion light years away. So, when one looks at the stars one is literally looking into the past. The light of the North Star, which has led navigators for centuries, takes 323 years to reach Earth. By comparison, the light from our sun takes eight minutes to reach us.

We live on the only planet we shall ever have, and it is a miraculous place with more discoveries to be made. Even in the Smoky Mountains National Park, it is estimated that there are 100,000 new species of life yet to be discovered.

I love science fiction. From Star Trek to Star Wars, from DC Comics to Marvel, I have enjoyed a lifetime of “what-ifs” and speculations.  But I am realistic enough to believe that we will never have, nor have ever had, alien encounters. Mere distance and time mitigate against it. In that respect, I trust science. If people and nations wish to spend billions on satisfying their curiosity, there’s not much I can do to affect that.

And how does this affect my faith? I simply cannot believe that all this magnificent and spectacular creation came into being as a result of some cosmic accident. The creation itself convinces me that, if there were no other evidence, there is a God, and he is creative.

Some people look into the heavens at night and wonder if aliens are going to wipe out humanity. I look at the Heavens and think, “Well done, Father. How marvelous are all your works.”

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). Worship services are on Sundays at 10:00 a.m. and on livestream at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life). He may be contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]