Adventures In The Habitable Zone – science, fiction and fairytales

"Goldilocks Planets" - searching the Habitable Zone

Today I saw a headline that said that Swiss scientists have found a potentially habitable planet called HD 85512 b. As I read the background information I heard the strident strains of a famous 1960’s TV program playing in my head and the following scene unfolded on the Bridge of a slightly dated Space Ship.

Adventures In The Habitable Zone

Boldly Going

“Ensign, take us out of Earth orbit and set a course to HD 85512 b.”

“Aye Aye, Captain. It’s 36 light years aways. We should be there in 20 minutes.”

Science Officer Spook’s eyebrow rose in surprise. He turned his tall lean form towards his Captain, a short but wide man who sprawled in his slightly too large command chair with a lack of grace that could be acquired only with a lifetime of practice in watching TV while eating Pizza straight from the box.

Keeping his tone carefully neutral, Spook said; “May I ask why you have selected HD 85512 b, Captain?”

Captain Quirk swiveled towards Spook, grinned widely and said, “To anyone but you, Spook, the answer would be obvious. Do you know what that planet is?”

“HD 85512 b is a small extrasolar planet orbiting the star HD 85512 in the constellation of Vela. It has a minimum Earth mass of 3.6 ± 0.5 , an orbital period of 58 days and a surface temperature of 298K, which is similar to the temperature in the South of France.”

“Forget the numbers, Spook. You missed out the best part.”

Spook’s eyebrow twitched upwards. “And what is the best part, Captain?”

Quirk slapped his substantial thigh in delight and said, “It’s a Goldilocks Planet.”

“I am aware of that, Captain, but I do not understand why you find this so appealing.”

“Goddamnit man, who wouldn’t want to spend time on a planet populated entirely by cute little blondes living in a climate warm enough that they don’t have to wear much of anything?”

Had he been capable of it, Spook would have smiled.

“You are correct, Captain. HD 85512 b is indeed a Goldilocks planet. The name derives from an Earth fable in which a young girl breaks into the home of a family of porridge-eating bears and samples their food. She finds one bowl too hot, one too cold and one…”

“…To be just right. I know the story, Spook. I’ve seen Goldilocks’ picture. She could sample my porridge any time.”

“The point, Captain, is that HD 85512 b is called a Goldilocks planet because it is at just the right temperature to support carbon-based life forms.”

“Like Goldilocks?”

“The logic of the naming would suggest that the occupants of the planet would not be little blonde girls, Goldilocks was, after all a visitor.”

“No Goldilocks?” Quirk’s brow furrowed as he tried to process the information

“No Goldilocks”, Spook replied

“Then who does live there?”

“According to the logic of the tale,” Spook said, “One might expect to find Bears.”

Quirk thought about this for a moment, then his smile returned.

“Bears, huh? Well I’m always up for a new experience. Prepare an Away Team, Mr. Spook. And bring along a couple of nice young men in Red Shirts who know how to party.”

Apologies to “Star Trek” fans everywhere (Isn’t it amazing how your perception of “Star Trek” changes once you’ve watched Denny Crane in “Boston Legal”?)

Anyway, as I researched HD 85512 b I discovered that considerable effort is being put into finding planets that might potentially be habitable or at least support life. Scientist have defined a Habitable Zone within which such planets might be found. One of the key characteristics is the temperature of the planet. This has prompted the informal term, Goldilocks Planet.

I’m sure the term is meant as a harmless piece of informality, but names often reveal a great deal about the way people think. If I were an Alien, tapping into Google to try and assess Mankind as a threat, I  might be worried about what Goldilocks did with the bowl of porridge that was at just the right temperature: she ate it all up.

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