Why we find exoplanets

Carl Sagan once said that Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena, and he wasn’t wrong. The number of stars in our galaxy alone is mindboggling enough to make any astronomer pessimistic. Nevertheless, as our telescopes, computer systems and imaging equipment improve over time, we are beginning to understand more about what the cosmos is made of. One of the most exciting advances of our generation is the understanding of exoplanets and the realization that our planetary system isn’t the only one.

What is an exoplanet?

Simply put, an exoplanet is a planet located outside of our own Solar System. Whilst the idea of exoplanets was theorized and imagined for many years, it wasn’t until 1992 that we could actually prove that they exist. This was simply because of the enormously vast distances between our own planet and other stars. In 1992, we confirmed the discovery of an exoplanet system – a system of terrestrial-mass planets orbiting the millisecond pulsar: PSR B1257+12. In my opinion, they could have given it a better name than PSR B1257+12!

Since then, there has been no stopping us as we have officially located 3545 exoplanets in 2,660 planetary systems. This was accurate as of December 2016, but the number of exoplanets we find keeps growing, dramatically.

Why are exoplanets so important?

One of the most fundamentally important questions humanity has ever asked can be answered if we find the right exoplanet. Since the early civilizations we began to look up at the stars and planets in our own solar system and work out why things were spinning, we’ve always wondered whether we are alone in the universe! As our theories and technology advances through time and refinement, we can now understand more than ever before about what is needed to create and sustain life on a planet.

Are exoplanets all the same?

Oh hell no. We have found planets that take 10,000 years to orbit their star, meaning a year on the planet lasts 10,000 of our year. We have found planets that orbit their sun in just a few days and would be hot enough to melt the strongest metals in nanoseconds! We have also found tidally locked planets that always face the same towards their star, meaning that one side would be scorching hot and the other in perpetual darkness. We found a planet that possibly rains glass and has 5400 mph winds which would destroy anything in its path. We found an exoplanet that could rain rubies and sapphires, and some that are made of mostly pure diamond. On the other hand, we have also found planets that we think might be suitable candidates for life to exist.

This post was uploaded by Russell Adam Webb from Prague

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