‘We’re explorers by design…’

An example of how fiercely a good writer can captivate her audience … whether or not they have an interest in science and stars.

Planets in the Sky With Diamonds

By DIANE ACKERMAN, Illustration by Andrew Holder
From the NYT Opinion section


GOLDILOCKS is alive in the constellation Vela. Her real name is HD 85512b, which may not roll off the tongue, but it’s sheer poetry to the ears of sky watchers like me, who long for signs of an Earth-like planet that might harbor life.

This newly discovered planet orbits its sun in what’s called the “Goldilocks,” or habitable zone, at the right distance for liquid water to sparkle on the surface and life to bloom in the shallows. Life as we know it, anyway, with wings and dreams, if the planet has a rocky surface — and isn’t too hot or too cold — as well as a tent of clouds for shade.

That’s a lot of ifs, which is why other candidates have been scarce. This is our best hope, though she’s 36 light-years away, beyond the reach of our spacecrafts or clear view of present telescopes, but well within the imagination. Her temperatures may range from 85 to 120 degrees, which conjures up images of equatorial Africa, or much of the hot, muggy United States this past July.

The past month has been a marvel in the planetary world. In addition to HD 85512b, astronomers spotted a planet that may be fashioned entirely of diamond, a brilliant diadem set in the black velvet of space. For all we know, it has baguette moons in tow. And a few weeks later, planet hunters confirmed the discovery of Kepler-16b, a planet that circles two suns in the constellation Cygnus.

In the “Star Wars” saga, Luke Skywalker hailed from such a world, Tatooine, where he paused from work on his uncle’s moisture farm to enjoy a smoldery suns-set. Until now a stable planet orbiting twin suns was science fiction, strictly hints and hunches. Wouldn’t the quarreling gravity of two suns shear the planet apart, swallow it whole, or hurtle it off into space? Apparently not. Such solar systems, with winking suns that eclipse one another every few weeks, may be common throughout the universe. That’s the best thing about discovery, how it widens the mind’s eye, refines the scope of our inquiries.

However, we won’t be glimpsing these worlds anytime soon, I’m afraid. If we want to explore in fine detail, we’ll need better eyes in the sky and faster robotic spaceships. I’m for both. Despite all the problems that beset us, we’re on the threshold of a new era of exploration and discovery. Scientists are asking thrilling questions, like: what existed before the universe? How did we get from the Big Bang to the whole shebang? Can we design spaceships that fly faster than the speed of light? Do other planetarians haunt the wilderness of space, or are we alone? I hope we’ll continue sending scouts around our solar system, and use the planets as stepping stones to the stars.

This is not a new goal, but one of humanity’s oldest yearnings. Every society has been tantalized by the great loom of the sky with its flowing quilt of stars. The Egyptian pyramids may have been arranged like the belt stars of Orion, pointing to Sirius, so that the pharaoh’s soul would be launched into the heavens where he’d shimmer as a star. To the San people in the Kalahari, the Milky Way is the “backbone of night.”

In the 20th century, we sent robot emissaries to explore the solar system and voyage deep into space. With the cupped ears of radio telescopes, we began listening for voices from other worlds. We rode fierce winds to the Moon and looked back in wonder, amazed to see Earth whole. Viewed from space, Earth had no visible fences, military zones or national borders. But it did have the thinnest rind — an atmosphere embracing the sky, weather systems and all of human history. That image from an Apollo mission changed everything.

We’re explorers by design, right down to our cells, and we thrive on quests. Stars flare like distant campfires overhead, and we wonder if they’re home to other worlds like our own. Or made of diamond. I’m hoping NASA will continue to find the boosters it needs, because our compass points to the stars.

Diane Ackerman is the author of “One Hundred Names for Love” and “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”

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