Nineteenth century astronomers had it right, 20th century got it wrong and it drastically delayed the search for exoplanets
While space based telescopes such as Hubble and Kepler have become really, really damn good at finding exoplanets now that we know what we’re looking for, there was a point in the early 20th century when scientists thought our planet-rich solar system was a total fluke, and it was likely there weren’t many other planets at all in the solar system. Problem is, this overturned 19th century ideas of planetary formation that were right all along, and would have begun the search for exoplanets much earlier. Nineteenth century astronomers believed solar systems formed in gaseous nebulae, but in the 20th century, the idea became popular that our solar system was a freak, and that all the stuff from the other bodies in it was due to another star passing too close to the sun, causing the sun to eject out all kinds of junk that became the planets and moons, and that such an event was probably extremely unlikely to happen in any other cases, if at all.
OMFG WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE! No, not really. It’s a thing the sun does about every 11 years or so, so if you’re older than 13, this has happened before in your lifetime and you didn’t even notice.
One day, a long long long time from now, the Sun will expand to many times its current size, engulfing the inner planets, including our own Earth, vaporizing our atmosphere and rocks and trees and cute baby deer. What will that look like? Some astronomers at Washington University St. Louis decided to find out.
For all of modern astronomy, we were pretty damn certain about the shape of the sun. It’s a giant ball of hot plasma and gas and magnetism, so it made sense that in test after test, it was an ever-changing, wobbly undulating thing, where the exact shape was never the same. But we were wrong. It’s a near perfect sphere, slightly flat near the poles, but otherwise almost perfectly round.
Normally, when anything crashes into a star, you can pretty much hang it up for that whatever it is. So when astronomers saw a comet named Lovejoy plunge into the Sun’s corona, the assumption was that was the end of the comet.. until the comet came out the other side of the Sun. A giant furnace, where even atoms are stripped down to their base components and yet somehow a comet survived.
First off, to be clear, solar flares do not pose any threat to life on Earth. However, a massive solar flare could, and has, disrupted communications by knocking out or disorienting satellites. But ahead of the solar maximum in 2013 or 2014, sun-watchers have been observing the build-up of what could be an incredibly massive flare that could be headed our way.