An astrophysicist from the University of Oklahoma, Xinyu Dai, may have made a fascinating discovery – a group of planets that is much like our own solar system. However, a crucial difference between this potential cluster of planets and our own cosmic neighborhood is that these planets are located outside of our own Milky Way galaxy; they are nearly 3.8 billion light years away. In fact, they are located in another galaxy entirely. They are potentially the first planets discovered outside of our galaxy, which is an important development for scientists’ scope of understanding. They are able to peer into other galaxies and discover what lies within them using a technique called microlensing, which utilizes the magnification of light due to it being bent by immense objects like galaxies, astrophysicists are able to see celestial objects like this faraway group of planets.
Although NASA scientist David Bennett cautions that these findings may not actually be planets but instead a type of star called a brown dwarf, the mere fact that we can see anything within a galaxy that is not our own is awe-inspiring. Humanity’s scope of vision is no longer limited to what our eyes can see at night, and the distant little pricks of light are becoming magnified enough to spill their secrets. It matters not if Dai discovered planets or a star; what matters is that the contents of another galaxy are able to be seen, and not just theorized upon. 3.8 billion light years is a massive distance; it is almost impossible to comprehend. Because the light from Dai’s discovery took billions of years to reach us, whatever was uncovered by Dai may very well not exist anymore. By looking up in the sky, we are looking back in time at snapshots of the past. Other galaxies are not just far away from us; they were long ago.
It is always worthwhile to reflect on discoveries such as these because they are reminders of the immensity of the universe we find ourselves in, and they also serve as humbling reminders of our place in the cosmos. Our solar system is not unique; Dai figures that for every star in in a distant galaxy, there are 2,000 planets. This means that every galaxy likely has trillions of planets (including the Milky Way). Our Earth is just one of many worlds floating around orbiting a star; it is only special because we make it special. If what Dai found was indeed a group of planets, on one of those planets could be a species looking at an image of Earth, wondering just like us about what lies out there. Although researching space can make us all feel a little small, exploring the universe can offer many rewards. For instance, finding other solar systems in different stages of development can enrich our understanding of planetary systems and understanding other galaxies can help us make sense of our own. When one realizes that the beauty of the universe is seemingly endless, doesn’t this make you appreciate it all a little more?
New discoveries such as Dai’s would be front page news in a perfect world. Wouldn’t it be great if, just for one day, instead of headlines describing petty politics or terrible tragedies, the front page of every newspaper featured stories that focused on the wonder of the cosmos and inspired curiosity and awe instead of dread and grief? If only more of us were able to look past the issues of the day and just marvel at the fact that humanity is able to know so much about what lies beyond our world and realize that because we are so small in comparison to everything else, all of our petty squabbles really mean nothing in the end. This is unrealistic of course, but seemingly irrelevant discoveries like finding distant planets or inspecting faraway galaxies can actually inspire such great contemplation and unite people across the world under our most universal human instinct – the desire to learn more about our existence.
Ben Crnic is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org