IN 2015, an observatory high in the Atacama Desert of Chile detected three planets orbiting an M star, an ultra-cool dwarf, in the constellation Aquarius about 40 light years, or 232 trillion miles, from Earth. Until then, the dim star was designated 2MASS J23062928-0502285. Not such a charming name. The discoverers of its satellites, a team of astronomers who operate the Chilean observatory remotely from Liege in Belgium, took the opportunity to warm up that appellation.
When Berkeley graduate student Erik Petigura and fellow researchers released analyses of Kepler spacecraft data late last year, it made headlines around the world. No surprise there: The findings led to the conclusion that the number of inhabitable Earth-like planets in the galaxy could top 40 billion. The Milky Way seemed somehow transformed from a cold and glittering panoply of massive fusion reactors churning in the void into something cozier—a kind of galactic farm pond, teeming with the ET-equivalent of rotifers and ciliates.
Posted on January 2, 2014 - 9:10am