Live Long and Prosper, Says Star With Two Belts

Just about every house has a room where projects go to die.

The old computer that you were going to refurbish and give to charity, that set of fabric swatches that were meant to be a quilt, your brief and ill-advised fling with oil painting—all the remnants of things that could have been, but were instead swept into a less-traveled area and left to mingle and collect dust.

In our solar system, the junk room is the main asteroid belt, a region between Mars and Jupiter full of pieces that could have been planets.

Thanks to mighty Jupiter’s gravity, those pieces of rocky and metallic debris just won’t coalesce into planets, leaving us with plenty of fodder for the next doomsday scenario.

Now it turns out that our closest stellar neighbor, a sunlike star called Epsilon Eridani, has not one asteroid belt, but two: one in roughly the same spot as our belt and another about as far from the star as Uranus is from the sun.


—Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomers using the Spitzer Space Telescope detected heat from the dust created as larger bits in the two belts collide.

“Because the system is so close to us, Spitzer can really pick out details in the dust, giving us a good look at the system’s architecture,” study co-author Karl Stapelfeldt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a press release.

The system has astronomers excited, because its star is so much like our sun, and the presence of asteroid belts means it probably has rocky planets lingering in between.

Two Jupiter-size planets have already been detected in the system—one in 1998 and another in 2000—and the scientists think a third planet might be in there shepherding around the asteroidal material.


—Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

The news likely has Star Trek fans reaching for their hyposprays full of tranquilizers, as Epsilon Eridani is none other than the star system said to belong to the Vulcans.

Could Mr. Spock’s homeworld be adrift even now in the dusty reaches of a double belted system a mere ten light-years from Earth?

Those longing for first contact might be disappointed. The Epsilon star is just a fifth the age of our sun, which means any cultures on a habitable world there would have to be going at maximum warp in the development department to be as advanced as Vulcans are made out to be in ST lore.

One also has to wonder what the presence of so many asteroids has to mean for the chances of life reaching an advanced stage in the Epsilon system.

For all we know, massive space boulders could be whizzing around the place like children’s toys in a Poltergeist movie, pelting any planets [and their alien dinosaurs] that get in the way.

This also puts a damper on the chances of alien cultures getting off their pockmarked planets and navigating out of the star system.

If the probability of successfully navigating the Hoth asteroid field in the Millennium Falcon is 3,720 to 1, what are the odds for a Vulcan science vessel making it through two asteroid belts to reach Earth?

Human Journey