Out of the billions of planets, moons, and solar systems in the Milky Way galaxy, why is
Earth where it is in relation to the other planets? What are the odds that it’s been hit by meteorites, comets, and asteroids? Why is it that Earth has only one or two meteor showers per year while the rest of the planets have frequent meteor showers? Is there something special about the Earth that makes it a target for intergalactic travel? These are the kinds of questions that scientists have been asking themselves for years, until recently. Thanks to recent advancements in technology, this field of inquiry has become much more accessible. With the help of the International Meteor Organization, various astronomy and science magazines, and the Google search engine, we can piece together a lot more information than we could in the past about these topics.
The Solar System Is Not Uneventful
The most recent and comprehensive examination of the Earth’s cosmic significance was published in the May/June 2017 issue of The Astronomical Journal. This publication is a bit of a special case because it combines data from several different sources into one cohesive whole, providing a more accurate and up-to-date look at our place in the galaxy. When it comes to our planetary system, the last few decades have been an era of unprecedented discovery and advancement. Thanks to the work of astronomers, planetary scientists, and cosmologists, we now know a great deal more about our home planet than we ever did before. As a result, the general public now has a much more realistic view of what our solar system is actually like.
An interesting sidelight to this scientific advancement is that while we used to think of the Earth as the center of the universe, this is no longer the case. We now know that Earth is not unique in terms of its relationship to the rest of the cosmos. The findings from this most recent scientific study indicate that our solar system is just one of several billion similar systems in the Milky Way galaxy. The implication of this is that life, as we know it, could emerge anywhere in the universe at any time, not just on Earth. The discovery that Earth is not the center of the universe opens up an entire new realm of possibility when it comes to discussing alien life and visitation from beyond our solar system.
Our Celestial Neighbors Are More Than We Once Knew
One would think that after almost sixty years of studying astronomy, we’d know a lot about the universe around us. But as with most things in life, the more we learn, the more we discover that we didn’t know before. Thanks to modern astronomy, it’s now possible to learn a great deal about our galactic neighbors, not just from afar, but from within. This is thanks to powerful telescopes and the steady hand of an observatory astronomer. With these tools at our disposal, we can now see inside the Milky Way and piece together the history of our entire solar system. It was once thought that the Solar System was a quiet, uneventful place, with only a few planets, no moons, and no asteroids. Thanks to modern astronomy, we now know that this is far from the truth.
The Solar System has long been known to be the home of a vast array of solar systems, including our own. Over the decades, observatory telescopes have helped to piece together this cosmic jigsaw, revealing a fascinating picture of the Milky Way.
The earliest confirmed discovery of another solar system occurred in 1916, when American astronomer Walter de Voort announced the discovery of a planetary system sixty-five light-years away from Earth. Thanks to the work of modern astronomers, we now know that this initial finding was spot on. De Voort’s prediction was that he would make a “discovery that will astound the world.” Although his initial prediction failed to impress the scientific community, his 1916 discovery was nothing short of spectacular. In his study of the nearby solar system, de Voort uncovered an Earth-like world, with a thick atmosphere, two small moons, and evidence of geological activity. Based on this new information, de Voort proposed a name for his newfound planet: Icarus. The world was later renamed, after the Greek god of the sun and the arts, to honor de Voort’s groundbreaking discovery.
Another example of modern astronomy coming in from the cold is the case of Epsilon Eridani, also known as 47 Ursae Majoris. In 1962, American astronomer William Wolfe found what appeared to be a new star in the sky. Upon further investigation, he realized that he was actually seeing the planet Earth, as seen from a distance of about 47 Ursae Majoris. While this might seem like an incredible feat of astronomy, what is truly fascinating is that this galaxy is so far away from us that in the summer, the Earth is actually cooler than in the winter, due to the effect of seasonal hibernation. As a result, the rotation of our planet will cause it to appear to be moving in the opposite direction. This is part of a phenomenon known as parallax, whereby the apparent position of an object will change as it zooms in and out of focus, due to the apparent displacement of nearby objects caused by the motion of the eye. In other words, we can actually see the entire galaxy from our point of view, as depicted in the 1993 film, Contact.
Thanks to modern astronomy, we know that our planet is not the only one visited by extraterrestrial life, and that it is not even necessarily unique. While Earthlings have marveled at the night’s sky for centuries, the reality is that we’ve been seeing evidence of “outsiders” visiting us for much longer. As early as 1908, Russian astronomer Ernst von Weyler-Hiegel discovered Comet Weyler, which he later determined was from another world. In 1915, he found another world entirely: Alpha Proctorii, which at the time, was believed to be the fifth planet from the sun. Von Weyler-Hiegel published his findings in the January 26, 1916 issue of Nature. While these were the first two confirmed detections of planets outside our own solar system, von Weyler-Hiegel was not yet finished. He continued to search for and find planets for the next twenty years.
In addition to the planets, the Solar System also contains a number of smaller bodies such as dwarf planets and frozen moons. For many years, astronomers believed that the only other planet similar in size to Earth was Venus. While this may have been the case when Venus was closer to the Sun than it is now, we now know that it is not. Thanks to the work of American astronomer Michael E. Brown, we know that there are three additional Earth-sized planets in our galaxy: Gliese 667 Cc, Gliese 667 Cd, and HD 85512. These three rocky planets were once thought to be the only three similar to Earth, but since then, astronomers have found hundreds of exoplanets, including 22 new exoplanets in the last year alone.
The Solar System is a marvel of cosmic architecture and a testament to the ingenuity of the designers that built it. While it’s true that we don’t know all of its secrets, what we do know is incredibly impressive. So far, our understanding of the universe around us has barely skimmed the top layer of an iceberg. Thanks to scientific research and the persistent curiosity of astronomers, we are gaining a better and better understanding of the vast oceans of space that lie beyond our own solar system. What’s more, with each new discovery, we’re expanding our knowledge of the cosmos even further than we previously knew it to be. In a few short years, we have gone from knowing almost nothing about what’s out there to having a detailed understanding of the construction of our galactic neighborhood. The road ahead looks incredibly exciting.