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Jewish World Review
Jan 14, 2012/ 21 Teves, 5772
Planets and roaches
For millennia we thought our little solar system of eight planets --nine, if you count Pluto, as some sentimentalists still do -- was unique in the universe. Then, in 1994, astronomers began to discover extra solar planets, and even though we weren't alone anymore, it seemed as if we were still part of a pretty exclusive club.
Now, thanks to further discoveries, it turns out that we are an infinitesimal part of a huge crowd, and that's just in our own galaxy. Recent research estimates that, conservatively, there are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way and each star averages 1.6 planets. In short, there are more planets than stars.
Except for the fact of insatiably curious life on Earth, we're not even a very interesting solar system.
Last September, astronomers found a gas planet the size of Saturn orbiting two stars, universally prompting the comparison to Luke Skywalker's home planet of Tatooine in the "Star Wars" movies. And then, in short order, astronomers discovered two other solar systems arrayed around double stars.
Astronomers also discovered a mini-solar system with three tiny rocky planets orbiting a dwarf star.
And the pace of discovery -- more than 700 confirmed planets with another 2,000 or so awaiting confirmation -- is likely to pick up as astronomers refine their techniques and the Kepler planet-hunting telescope is on the job.
Astronomer John Johnson of Cal Tech had an inelegant if effective analogy: "It's kind of like cockroaches. If you see one, then there are dozens hiding."
Not that we're complaining, mind you, but these discoveries seem to be coming faster than we laypersons can handle them. But keep up the good work, anyway.
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