Memo to Trekkies, Spock’s home planet Vulcan was never really there

Special to, June 6, 2024

An alien world orbiting a star made famous as hosting Spock’s home planet of Vulcan in Star Trek was nothing but a celestial illusion, scientists say.

Artist’s concept of a previously proposed possible planet, HD 26965 b. / Illustration: JPL-Caltech

In 2018, much to the delight of Trekkies, the discovery of the planet was first announced. It was thought to be orbiting the star 40 Eridani A.

In the Star Trek universe, the star 40 Eridani A hosts Spock’s home planet. Fans were elated by the discovery, comparing planet HD 26965 b to the fictional Vulcan.

Unfortunately, according to a new study published in The Astronomical Journal, it seems that HD 26965 b was never really there. Instead, its detection was likely the result of pulses or jitters produced by the star itself.

“HD 26965 b was classified as a super-Earth, which means it was measured to be larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. It was also thought to complete an orbit around its star in 42 days. At the time, the astronomers behind the discovery warned that it could be the result of some messy star action,” Passant Rabie reported for Gizmodo on May 29.

“A different team of astronomers revisited the discovery using a recently installed instrument at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, applying more finely tuned radial velocity measurements,” Rabie continued. “After parsing out the planet’s signal at different wavelengths of light emitted from various levels of the star’s outer shell, the astronomers made a key discovery. They found notable differences between individual wavelength measurements and the combined signal of all the measurements.

“From that, they concluded that the planet’s signal detected in 2018 was likely caused by the flickering of something on the star’s surface that happens to have a 42-day rotation. This stellar jitter could result from the turbulent mixing of hot and cool layers beneath the star’s surface, known as convection. Additionally, spots and bright, active regions on the star may be affecting its radial velocity signals.”

So, Rabie concluded, “just as the fictional planet Vulcan was destroyed in Star Trek, its real-life replica no longer exists.”

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