September 2, 1997
A new era in the exploration of the universe has begun. In 1995, after decades of intense scientific investigation, planet hunters discovered the first alien solar system around a star like our own Sun. Since then, armed with new insight and technology, astronomers have been discovering planets at an exhilarating pace. Every day seems to bring us closer to finding an Earthlike planet, perhaps harboring life, and the resolution of the grandest human mystery of all: Are we alone?
Now astronomer and internationally acclaimed author Ken Croswell has written the definitive guide to the culmination of the scientific revolution that began with Copernicus. Weaving together the personal travails of the scientists who made the key discoveries, Croswell marshals extensive research and interviews to bring to life this epic of scientific adventure – in language so clear that anyone can understand. He succinctly defines the essential features of our own solar system, then recounts the stories of the discovery of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto in the search for the mysterious Planet X. From there we leap with him beyond our solar system’s edge, following the pioneers of science in their quest for planets around other stars.
In the decades preceding ours, disappointment and frustration reigned among astronomers, as claims of discovery based on the necessarily infinitesimal measurements were made only to be disproved and cast back into the void of obscurity. But planets recently found orbiting a dead star known as a pulsar heralded the new era of planetary exploration that Planet Quest opens the door on with the 1995 discovery of a Jupiter-sized planet circling 51 Pegasi, a star virtually identical to the Sun. The discovery of this planet was quickly followed by another, found quietly wending its way around the star 47 Ursae Majoris, and within two years we reached a grand total of seven known alien solar systems in the universe. Another system, yet to be confirmed, lies a mere eight light years from Earth. Thus, in just a few frenetic years, humankind advanced from not knowing if there were any planets around other stars to sighting more than half a dozen outposts of the final frontier.
For the first time, as Croswell lucidly explains, we have demonstrated that the universe at large does in fact possess the four basic astronomical ingredients for life. Moreover, he shows how new space-based and technologically advanced observatories could provide direct detailed images of our new neighbors. Perhaps someone, or something, we’ll be waving back.
Ken Croswell, Harvard-trained astronomer, is the author of the internationally successful The Alchemy of the Heavens, which was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He contributes to Astronomy, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist, and The New York Times as well as the radio programs StarDate, which airs on 200 stations. He lives in Berkeley, California.