NASA’s Kepler spacecraft
There are 400 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. Now we know, thanks to the data collected by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft (image above and below), that 40 billion Earth-size planets orbit around these 400 billion stars.
The nearest such Earth-size planet is 12 light years from us which in mile-speak would be 72 trillion miles or kilometer-speak would be 120 trillion kms. At the speed of light, which is 186,282.4 miles a second, it would take any radio signal from this nearest Earth-size neighbor 12 years to reach us. I cite these figures only in order to give you some perspective about the scale even within a galaxy as commonplace as the Milky Way so that those among us who walk around with an anthropocentric boner can calm things down.
When you consider that distance, the journey to Mars seems rather short because it is only about nine months at the current spacecraft speed of 12,500 miles to 15,000 miles an hour.At the speed of light it would be accomplished in about 12 to 14 minutes or so depending where it is in its orbit compared to Earth.
Speaking of the journey to Mars, India has taken its first successful step towards the planet with the launch of its Mars craft ‘Mangalyaan’. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) conducted a successful liftoff on October 5 India time to temporarily park its Mars orbiter in an elliptical orbit around Earth. It will stay there for about a month as it boosts its orbit through short rocket burns before eventually leaving our planet’s gravitational pull through a slingshot.
It is expected to reach Mars in September next year. There it will study Martian atmosphere, in particular the level of methane as a possible indicator of life. Of course, a lot can go wrong between now and September but the first difficult step was executed by Indian scientists flawlessly.
Either by design or default, the ISRO team launched the mission to Mars, which is known as Mangal in Indian languages, on a Tuesday, which is called Mangalvar in India.
It is an interesting contrast that just about the time we are told that there are 40 billion Earth-size planets in our galaxy, India also launches its first interplanetary mission to a planet which in Indian astrology is said to exercise malignant influence on people’s fortunes. Perhaps on some of these 40 billion Earth-size planets there exist civilizations in different stages of scientific and technological advancement like us. They may also have their own superstitions about their own versions of a malignant Mars. Or perhaps they are life forms so markedly different from ours that they have none of our human frailties.
I am curious to find out how many of the Mangalyaan mission members were told by astrologers in their childhood that they are under the destructive influence of Mars and they must ward it off by wearing rings and talismans and/or carry out placatory rituals to neutralize it. But India being what it is no one should be surprised if all of these rational and irrational realms coexist without much difficulty.
Coming back to the 40 billion Earth-size planets in our galactic neighborhood, what if the one barely 12 light years away does indeed have a comparable civilization? What if it is our twin where everything is the exact opposite of what we have on Earth? If that is the case, there is yet a possibility of an intelligent and wealthy me existing there.