Early last week, my curiosity was piqued when I caught a news headline indicating that NASA was about to make a major announcement regarding exoplanets. This refers to worlds orbiting the billions of stars in our own galaxy and the trillions of others that are likely orbiting stars in the myriad of galaxies within the universe.
While scientists had theorized that such planets orbited these stars, it wasn't until 1992 that mankind had positive proof. Using a space-based telescope above Earth, they made that historic discovery.
That finding began what turned into a proverbial "gold rush" of additional discoveries. In just 25 years, the number of known exosolar planets we have positively identified has grown to more than 3,300.
Among those worlds is Kepler 10b, located 560 light years from Earth. Orbiting a sun-like star at a distance of just 1.6 million miles, it's surface temperature is a scorching 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot enough to turn its surface into molten lava.
Last Wednesday, that number increased by another seven after scientists announced they had discovered seven Earth-sized worlds orbiting a tiny star 40 light years, or 235 trillion miles, from Earth in the constellation Aquarius.
What makes the worlds surrounding the star Trappist-1 so fascinating is many of them could have the necessary conditions to support life as we know it. Initial information released last week indicates that the surface temperature of these worlds ranges from 32 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
To help put that into perspective, the surface temperature on Mercury on the "daytime" side is a blistering 800 degrees Fahrenheit while the "summertime" temperature on Mars is a balmy 40 degrees -- below zero.
Another amazing fact regarding Trappist-1 is the star itself is only the size of Jupiter and the worlds surrounding it are so close that the inner planets orbit that star in less than a week. That's far faster than Mercury, which takes 88 days to orbit the Sun.
Here's something to consider: Those seven worlds orbit that star at roughly the same speed that the moons of Jupiter and Saturn rotate around those worlds. In fact, if you watch the moons of both planets from one night to the next, you can immediately see how quickly they've changed places.
That wasn't the only mind-blowing discovery announced in the past couple of weeks. Just a few days earlier, scientists announced they had discovered signs of organic material -- the building blocks of life -- on the dwarf planet Ceres.
Tucked away in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the Texas-sized asteroid continues to both baffle and mystify scientists and curious individuals like myself. From my perspective, that sense of amazement comes because Ceres looks like a barren rock riddled with craters from the countless barrage of meteor strikes its deal with over the eons.
Today, that tiny world has shown that it's anything but barren. The space probe in orbit around that tumbling bolder has shown that it has a very thin atmosphere with evidence that it contains water vapor.
It's possible that this atmosphere exists because of a subsurface ocean locked away beneath its rocky surface. The vapor itself could be produced as a result of ice volcanoes or when the ice transforming from solid to gas after being exposed to sunlight.
The discovery of that organic material had me going, "huh?" After all, I had assumed these type of building blocks would be limited to worlds with conditions more conducive to creating life. To see it happen somewhere that was about as barren as our own moon left me speechless.
These discoveries come as mankind continues to unlock even more secrets of our universe. More important, we are coming ever closer to discovering what it will take to reach these stars with unmanned space probes and, with luck, future manned expeditions.
For humanity to reach the stars, it's critical that we discover how to bridge the trillions of miles separating our world from those we've discovered to date. Currently, it would take 80,000 years for a space probe to reach Proxima Centuri, which at 4.22 light years from Earth is the closest star to our own solar system.
I don't know about you, but I don't want to wait more than 80,000 years to start discovering the treasure trove of mysteries surrounding that tiny star.
Over the years, I've often heard people criticizing the amount of money devoted to mankind's quest to explore the heavens. Some out there question why we need to invest so much time, effort and money looking beyond our planet when they feel that same type of effort should be spent helping those around the world.
Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, who created the television series Babylon 5 back in the 1990s, had a very interesting comeback to that argument. Speaking through one of the characters of that science fiction program, he remarked that if you ask 10 different scientists about what should be done about the environment, population control or genetics, you'll get 10 completely different answers.
However, Straczynski emphasized that there's one thing every scientist on Earth agrees will happen.
"Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out," he said. "When that happens, it won't just take us. It'll take Marilyn Monroe and Lao-Tzu and Einstein... and Buddy Holly and Aristophanes. And all of this -- all of this -- was for nothing. Unless we go to the stars."
And this is why humanity needs to continue to reach to the heavens. If nothing else, it will help answer the greatest questions of all time -- who are we, and why are we here?
-- Brian S. Orban