Depictions of alien planets in Star Trek have included Vasquez Rocks, Paramount sound stages, and matte paintings from TOS and TNG. But as our ability to see beyond our own solar system increases, so too does our knowledge of the strange new worlds orbiting other stars. While we haven’t yet discovered any Vulcans out there (or perhaps more appropriately, they haven’t discovered us), we can take some comfort in the similar lack of the Borg Unicomplex.
As of the first week of July 2011, astronomers and astrophysicists around the world have discovered over 565 extrasolar planets, and the numbers and types continue to grow.
Recent discoveries of extrasolar planets further the supposition that our own system is not so unique in the cosmos. The University of Oxford recently reported the discovery of smaller planets, including the twin Neptune-sized planets pictured at right. This is an important and exciting discovery because many of the extrasolar planets that have been discovered have been hot Jupiters – enormous gas giants that orbit very close to their parent stars, and are very unlikely to harbor any kind of life as we know it. Also among the recent discoveries is that of a team from University of California, Berkeley which introduced the world to five planets orbiting the star 55 Cancri. No other star, other than our Sun, has more planets; and although 55 Cancri’s planets are all gas giants, the discovery suggests that many stars may harbor planetary systems, not simply singular planets. Furthermore, the systems HD 10180 and Kepler-11 host systems of six planets each, setting the current record.
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