The discovery of a planet orbiting around a star far from Earth has created excitement among astronomers. Though the discovery has no apparent practical use, it opens up exciting vistas for the imagination.
Astronomers are elated for three reasons: (1) It is the first confirmed evidence that other planets exist outside the solar system, (2) it raises the possibility that planets may be fairly common companions of stars, and (3) if that is true, it means life may be common across the universe.The star with the planet is an undistinguished sun, identified only by a number - HD 114762 - some 90 light years from Earth. A light year is the distance light travels in one year at 186,000 miles per second.
Planets outside of our own solar system are too small and too dark to be seen with the most powerful telescopes. The newly-discovered one was detected by noting that its pull of gravity caused HD 114762 to wobble slightly.
The wobble was detectable only because the unnamed new planet is huge - 20 times larger than Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system - and because it was so close to the sun, orbiting every 84 days, about the same orbit as our planet Mercury. That means the unseen planet is as hot as Mercury, too hot for any life.
Our sun has nine planets. Perhaps HD 114762 has others as well. Something the size of Earth could not be detected because the gravitational pull would be too slight to make much of a wobble in the star's movement.
Yet the excitement is there. Our sun has planets. If another ordinary star in the Milky Way galaxy also has one or more planets, then so do others. And because the Milky Way alone - in its 100,000 light-year span - contains billions of stars, there must be billions of planets as well. Who knows what they might contain?
The discovery is a reminder that the most profound advances in science often come from what is called "small science," the little basic projects that don't always cost huge sums of money. Supercolliders and space stations are the glamour items, but they should not attract all the research money at the expense of less glamorous, but still-important work.