The year 1989 was an eventful one historically. Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall contrasted demonstrations for human rights and freedom against corporate disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The same year we experienced advancements in entertainment, such as Nintendo introducing its Game Boy, signaling the era we now live in with an estimated 83% of the Earth’s population carrying a pocket communication device capable of surfing the web and playing games at any time. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Back to the Future II topped the film box-office numbers, while The Simpsons premiered on television.
So what does this all have to do with space?
Since we first began distributing information and communicating via wireless media using radio waves and other electromagnetic frequencies, we have created a digital bubble of information that is expanding into the universe. Across the vacuum of space, many of these transmissions spread out in all directions at the speed of light, about 186,000 miles per second. Whether it’s the light of our sun traversing the 93 million miles to Earth in about eight minutes, or us communicating with the Voyager 1 probe 14.7 billion miles away with one-way communication time of around 21 hours, these various forms of light move extremely quickly to cover vast distances.
Our nearest neighboring star system is Proxima Centauri b, about 4.24 light-years distant, meaning any aliens on that world listening on the right wavelengths would be able to hear and observe transmissions sent from earth around July 2018. They could then respond with their enjoyment or distaste for Cardi B’s July 2018 chart topper “I Like It” with a message sent now, which we would receive in another 4.24 years, or about March 2027.
One distant exoplanet currently of high interest to astronomers and researchers is GJ 436 b. At 33 light-years from Earth, this “hot Neptune” is estimated at 21 times the mass of Earth and 4.5 times its radius in size. This makes it similar in size to Uranus or Neptune, albeit in an orbit much closer to its host star and therefore much hotter. Combining data from ground and space-based observatories, we believe this planet is composed of a high percentage of water, but under such extreme pressure that it is compressed into a rare form of hot ice. Though humans would have a difficult time (read “virtually impossible”) surviving in such a hostile environment, the planet could have moons or other planets in its system that may be hospitable for life as we know it. That and its massive, comet-like tail of water vapor trailing behind it in orbit make this a top contender among strange worlds for us to study.
On November 5 the Jim and Linda Lee Planetarium at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in partnership with the Museum of Indigenous People, NAZ Astro and your own Backyard Astronomer, will present information about this and other exoworlds as part of the International Astronomical Union’s 2022 naming event for 20 exoplanets and their host stars. This process will soon replace the name GJ 436 b with one more suitable and this year’s naming theme is indigenous languages. Stay tuned for a series of events, interviews and presentations related to this project.
And for any aliens on GJ 436 b listening to our signals today, on behalf of all of humanity, I apologize for 1989s Milli Vanilli hit “Blame It on the Rain.”
If you would like to learn more about the sky, telescopes, or socialize with other amateur astronomers, visit us at prescottastronomyclub.org or Facebook @PrescottAstronomyClub to find the next star party, Star Talk, or event.
Adam England is the owner of Manzanita Financial and moonlights as an amateur astronomer, writer, and interplanetary conquest consultant. Follow his rants and exploits on Twitter @AZSalesman or at Facebook.com/insuredbyadam.