Gliese 581d orbiting it's red star
Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey
Except attributed images.
It is the gift of the human curiosity and the power of the mind that allows us to look up into the night sky and think about what's out there. People have been doing that for millions of years, always curious, always wondering. Our literature and entertainment reflect that curiosity through the frequent use of space and alien planets in books, television and movies. We have, vicariously at least, traveled far on voyages driven by the power of imagination. But it goes beyond mere diversions.
One of winter's singular charms is the ability for us to view the night sky in high definition. the stars shine bright and clear and somehow seem closer. Last night after I returned home late from work, I took a moment to look up. Above me hung the familiar constellation of Orion the Hunter. My eyes traced the familiar stars, Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, Saiph and Rigel marking the corners of the formation, and the belt stars, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. Below the belt was the fuzzy patch of the Orion Nebula where new stars were being born as I watched. The constellation, as are nearly all of them, is an illusion born by perspective. The stars are not adjacent to each other, but rather range in distances from 700 to 2,000 light years. If the Earth was a light year or so to the left or right, our constellations would look very different. Still, I remain fascinated by the stars, and the universe in which they inhabit.
For thousands of years, we only knew the stars and the planets in our own solar family. In recent years, however, planets outside the solar system have been discovered, some 1,906 in 1,208 other solar systems. The first reaction most humans have to that news is, "Are they inhabited?"