Hurrah for more exoplanets making the news this week. This time it is a star with a whole bunch of small planets very close to the star, usually they tend to be single gas giants larger even than Jupiter as this list of stars with exoplanets from Wikipedia shows.

But these stars are all so far away! The closest star with an exoplanet found in orbit around it so far is 10 light years away (Epsilon Eridani) and this week’s system was found over 2000 light years away. To put this in perspective, Voyager 2 is currently 11 hours 13 minutes and 52 seconds of light travel from Earth just over 33 years after launch. It hasn’t really left our solar system yet - it is twice as far from the sun as Pluto but not as far as planet X - and according to current calculations it will next encounter a star (Sirius) in 290,000 years time, by which time it will be 8.6 light years from Earth and its instruments will be long dead.

Of course, we don’t tend to talk about stars that don’t have planets orbiting them. I presume that we would know by now if our nearest stars like Proxima Centauri or Alpha Centauri definitely do not have stars orbiting them, so we definitely know that Epsilon Eridani is the star nearest to us with a planuc8et. It would be good to know that you definitely have to go that far to see more planets.

How on earth would you get there? You can’t travel faster than light and you can only send telemetry back fast as the speed of light so it is mostly the time that any such mission would take that ruins most notions of knowing anything about these planets any time soon.

Our best hope lies with artificial intelligence applied to two different problem domains. One is the exploration of the known universe with a set of Von Neumann probes. This is a device that replicates itself in order to complete its mission. It is quite a popular theme of science fiction to involve such devices as berserk swarms of robots intent on destroying all life but realistically if human endeavour is to amount to anything, the creation of these machines to explore the universe and to conduct the experiments using the data collected is our best bet at outlasting our rapidly dwindling natural resources.

If artificial life beamed out into space to replicate itself forever is a bit too weird to countenance, how about the use of artificial intelligence to perform and guide research right here on earth? At the moment machines cannot really play Go and can only really beat humans at chess by being able to perform analysis of more future moves from each configuration of the board than his fleshbound opponent. However, life produces Chess Grandmasters and Go players so computer programs will eventually be able to too. Perhaps a philosopher, a computer science or a better mathematician than I would care to disagree. However, it is my belief that we will eventually be able to program our computers to make similar leaps of faith and connections between disparate elements as made by humans. At that point, ending the disconnect between the logic and the brute force work will greatly speed up many research processes. Some might feel that this is a monstrous relegation of humanity to the fringes of science but I personally believe that the removal of human bias and error will be of great benefit, not to mention the many discoveries that could be made.

Anyway, enough of the speculative stuff for now. I think I might try and learn a bit more about astrophysics in the future, if I get any insights I will be sure to share them here.


Hero image is Hubble’s High-Definition Panoramic View of the Andromeda Galaxy, creative commons license.