ARLINGTON, Texas — Star Trek’s Capt. James Tiberius Kirk led his USS Enterprise through space in search of new life forms and worlds — a task outlined at the beginning of the popular 1960s TV show.
“Space,” that iconic voice states. “The final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
If Kirk had gone back in time, he would have found an Earth-based team working on a similar project. Today, a group of astrophysicists from the University of Texas at Arlington are also pondering: “Are we alone in the universe?”
Physics professor Zdzislaw Musielak, associate professor Manfred Cuntz and doctoral student Billy Quarles grabbed headlines last week as they unveiled research that may help scientists find a planet or moon with some sort of life. Their work tries to answer a question that has inspired fiction writers and scientists for ages.
“We are almost discovering what was science fiction 30 years ago,” Quarles said.
Using data from the Kepler mission space telescope and computer modeling, the UTA team is trying to map for scientists where conditions exist to support life within the Kepler-16 system. That system made headlines last fall when NASA announced the existence of a “world with a double sunset, as portrayed in the film Star Wars.”
Kepler-16b has been likened to Tatooine — think of the place Luke Skywalker was attacked by Tusken Raiders or Sand People — but it is uninhabitable, according to NASA.
The UTA team was inspired by the discovery, said Musielak, describing how Quarles brought him an article about it. They were moved to make calculations using the tools available, Musielak said, and the results indicated that an Earth-like planet could exist in a “habitable zone” as an exomoon of Kepler-16b.
The team also concluded that an “extendable habitable zone” exists outside Kepler-16b’s orbit, according to UTA.
Cuntz said that life form could be along the lines of a plant or bacteria. The planet’s critical feature to sustain life would be liquid water, he said.
Quarles said it would be akin to life that could exist on Mars — more dependent on carbon dioxide than oxygen.
Musielak said that finding a moon in that system would be historic.
“It would be one of the greatest discoveries,” he said. “This would be the first moon discovered outside of our solar system, and it would be habitable.”
These findings were presented last week to the American Astronomical Society in Austin.
The team is encouraged by all the attention their work is getting — imagine people talking astrophysics on the streets. The science fiction references help people understand the information. The attention is also prompting people to ask more questions, which scientists thrive on, he said.
Musielak said people typically respond, “Ah, really. Hmmm, that’s very, very interesting.”
Quarles said that while scientists make these discoveries with satellites and modeling, they still can’t be verified in person. Still, the team says this type of scientific discussion can lead to more space exploration.
“You never know what people will do,” Musielak said. “Sometimes, it’s very hard to make predictions. Things are changing almost every year from the technology point of view.”
So while people don’t have the tools to travel to the Kepler-16 system today, scientists don’t rule out the possibility that someday humans will find a way to travel there.
Just don’t expect them to find Klingons, Tribbles or Romulans.