FOR AN ENCHANTING few days in 1984, there was an 800 number you could call to reach a live hookup with the Voyager unmanned space vehicle, then making its way past the planet Uranus. For as long as you cared to listen, the receiver would issue a bewitching, alien-sounding collection of static bursts, hums, little snaps and cracks. The wonder of hearing noises from a couple hundred million miles out was astronomy at its best. The space program has been starved for that sense of wonder in recent years, what with budget setbacks, research delays and the Challenger tragedy. But last month a convention of scientists in Canada came up with a good old-fashioned wonder in the heavens. They announced they'd seen evidence of two previously unknown planets, the first to be identified outside our own solar system, orbiting nearby stars.
Actually, kids going through their astronomy phase -- generally right after dinosaurs and before rock collections -- might be surprised to hear that these are the first. Other planetary systems are an article of faith: didn't we settle all of that long ago, with all those beautiful elementary-school charts of planets orbiting stars and stars wheeling around galaxies and galaxies rushing away from one another at the speed of light? Didn't we send messages to other civilizations via Voyager and scan for radio transmissions? And besides, what about "Star Trek"?
The answer is that "seeing" a planet orbiting a star 48 light years away or even just 11 (the distances of the stars in question) is quite a trick. To do it, scientists calculate the unexplained "wobble" in a star's orbit that could be caused by the gravitational pull of an orbiting body. Several years ago, an Arizona astrophysical observatory published findings of an apparent planet circling a star called Van Biesbroc 8 -- they don't name stars like they used to -- but teams following up on the findings failed to duplicate them. These new findings are more solid and significant, the outcome of a six-year search that monitored 16 stars that exhibited such a wobble. The nearness of Epsilon Eridani, the nearer of the two, which could be reached in a paltry 11 years by a spaceship traveling at the speed of light, is particularly satisfying to sci-fi buffs who have long posited that particular star as a good home base for UFOs. It's also something that the layman can relate to and get excited about, a nice change for astronomers who occasionally like a break from wavelengths and color shifts and other arcana of high physics.
"People really like the gee-whiz stuff, and so do we," says one such astrophysicist at NASA. "Everyone would be happiest, I guess, if we were to look through a telescope and see an animal grazing." Short of that, in a long summer characterized by discussions of governmental corruption, multi-layered disinformation and excessive humidity, tidings of new worlds may be just the pick-me-up we need.