Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Planet Vulcan – Fact or Fiction?

The planet Vulcan? Wasn’t that where Mr. Spock form Star Trek came from? Wasn't Vulcan just a made-up planet by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry? There is another planet Vulcan? The answer is yes and no, here’s what I think…

The story of the planet Vulcan, (Vulcan by the way, was the Roman god of fire) actually begins over 200 years ago in 1781. It was the discovery of the planet Uranus by astronomer William Herschel that really got the Vulcan thing going. Soon after its discovery many astronomers began to study Uranus, It was soon clear to these astronomers that Uranus was performing oddly. Physicists had predicted its orbit and were surprised to find it was orbiting the sun in a matter not consistent with the physics of Sir Isaac Newton. Surely the physics of Newton were not wrong? If not then the obvious answer was that there was another planet out there, further from the sun, than was Uranus, the gravitational influence of which was causing Uranus to orbit as it did.

In the 1840’s famed astronomer Urbain Jean Joseph LeVerrier of France (shown at the top of this posting on a French postage stamp) analyzed the irregularities in the Uranus orbit which led him to discover the planet Neptune in 1846. (The orbit of Neptune also pointed to the way for the 84 year later discovery of Pluto) LeVerrier, seemingly not content with merely discovering one planet turned his sights on the orbit of the planet Mercury and found it too had tiny deviations from its calculated path. Digging through many records he found instances of the sighting of a small black dot that would move fleetingly across the Sun. Intrigued, he did the math, and computed that Vulcan must orbit about 13 million miles from the surface of the Sun, with a year of only 20 Earth Days is length. Based on his work, LeVerrier predicted that the planet Vulcan would best be able to be seen on March 22, 1877.

In the years that followed s spattering of Vulcan sightings were reported and some text books even began to include Vulcan on their list of planets.

Back in 1846, LeVerrier pointed to the heavens predicting a new planet (Neptune) would be discovered. Only two assistants at the Berlin Observatory looked. As promised it was found, the scientific community, not to mention the world community was impressed . On March 22, 1877, you can bet every astronomer had his telescope trained on the Sun looking for the passage of the new planet Vulcan. No one saw Vulcan. LeVerrier died in 1877 and never knew the solution to the mystery of Mercury's orbit.

Now we know that the answer to the orbital deviations were proven by Einstein (in 1915) to be due to relativistic effects of the Sun's huge mass bending space-time. These same effects are utterly trivial for planets further away from the Sun.

Well there you have it, but who knows what may turn up in the future to alter my opinion, that’s why I invite you to keep an open mind and keep walking in this big weird world of ours!

I’m Average Joe


1 comment:

Whats up Doc? said...

That is just too cool! I never knew any of this stuff. Wher do you get all of your information?

-Jerry (UFONUT2005)