...the first place you might want to go would be Exoplanets.org. Maybe everybody already knew about this site as well, and just hasn't told me yet, like that whole Year of the Potato thing. I'm sure that Phil Plait has blogged about it somewhere (I'm not even going to look, it'll just remind me that I need to read Bad Astronomy more often, and that I still haven't bought Death from the Skies! yet - sigh). Nevertheless, I'm finding it more than a little interesting. This morning, I was looking at the Kepler Star Wheel, downloaded from the NASA Kepler Mission site, and noticed that it had a link (which was wrong) to a source for the star wheel's included exoplanet table. That, in turn, after a few minutes' fruitful searching, led me here.
Included in the site is a list of all known exoplanets, with data and references. I haven't been able to determine quite when it was last updated, but I'm assuming that it was within 2008, as that's the date on some of the references. The number of planets known outside of the solar system? 228.
You read that right. 228 worlds known. Five of them alone in the system around the star 55 Cancri. Five. As illustrated in the picture by the talented artist and helpful friend of my other blog, Lynette Cook (take a look, she does gorgeous work, or check out her Zazzle store). Obviously, illustrations like this are imaginative, and may not represent the real appearance of these star systems. One day soon, we'll know for certain. But for now, they're the best thing that we have, and I have to say again, Ms Cook does gorgeous work.
When I was watching the original Star Trek series as a child, in repeats Sunday mornings on one of only five broadcast channels in town, it was always taken for granted in the stories that there were worlds around other stars. I saw Kirk, Spock, and McCoy go to them each week. But we didn't know that these "strange new worlds" were acutally there. What's amazing is that now, we do. We know that there are other solar systems. We know that the ancient prejudice of ours being the only world, around the only star, at the centre of a universe built as a sort of blind belief proving ground is false.
The other aspect of that Star Trek parallel is the discovery of Earth-like worlds on which other civilisations may exist. Of course, in retrospect it might have seemed odd that most of them either looked like a set in a studio or like parts of southern California (just as all alien worlds in classic Doctor Who look like gravel pits in the Home Counties), and more than 75% of those were home to humanoids physically similar enough to us for Kirk to have a snog with. That's the part that we don't known about yet. But it should be the part that fires our imagination, and makes us want to know more. Finding these planets may still be a quarter century away, although some people have suggested that such a discovery is coming a lot sooner than that. And it should be pointed out that finding a planet is one thing - finding a civilisation is quite another.
As human beings grow as a species, it is to be hoped that we will continue to make decisions that move us further away from the darkness, and into the light. There's so much more to see and find, and so many questions that remain unanswered. That's what gets me out of bed on cold, dreary mornings that promise snow.
So take a look at Exoplanets.org, and maybe it will remind you, as it reminds me, just how monumental this information is. Thanks to dedicated scientists and amateurs, human beings know more about worlds beyond our own solar system, and have learned it in just twenty years. That is what science can do for you.