An Exoplanet Atmosphere Close By – OpEd


While the planet is too hot to be habitable, detecting its atmosphere can provide insights into the early conditions of Earth, Venus, and Mars. Thus, researchers using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope may have detected atmospheric gases surrounding 55 Cancri e, a hot rocky exoplanet 41 light-years from Earth. Renyu Hu from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is lead author on a paper published in Nature; 55 Cancri e is one of five known planets orbiting the Sun-like star 55 Cancri. 

With a diameter nearly twice that of Earth and a density slightly greater, the planet is classified as a super-Earth: larger than Earth, smaller than Neptune, and similar in composition to the rocky planets in our solar system.

However, to describe 55 Cancri e as “rocky,” is wrong. The planet orbits so close to its star (about 1.4 million miles, or one-twenty-fifth the distance between Mercury and the Sun) that its surface is likely to be molten — a bubbling ocean of magma. With such a tight orbit, the planet is also likely to be tidally locked, with a dayside that faces the star at all times and a nightside in perpetual darkness; and a narrow mixed band between the two sides. 

Previous studies of 55 Cancri e using data from NASA’s now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope suggested the presence of a substantial atmosphere rich in molecules that occur in gas form on Earth like oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide.

When God said: “Let us make mankind.” Who were the ‘us’? Most traditional imams and rabbis would say this is a reference to the angels who help carry out God’s activities. 

I say it is a reference to the millions of extraterrestrial societies spread throughout our universe that we are just beginning to learn about. The first exoplanet was discovered in 1992, and since then 5000+ exoplanets have been confirmed. 

A study using gravitational microlensing suggests that almost every star in our galaxy has at least one planet circling it; so the 100-200 billion stars in our galaxy means there are at least 100-200 billion planets in our galaxy.

Astronomers have found one of the most important building blocks of life, glycolaldehyde — a simple form of sugar (the common name for a range of small carbohydrate molecules containing carbon, hydrogen and oxygen) in the gas surrounding a young binary star, with similar mass to our Sun. Glycolaldehyde has been seen in interstellar space before but this is the first time it has been found so near to a Sun-like star, at distances comparable to the distance of Uranus from the Sun in our Solar System.

This discovery shows that some of the chemical compounds needed for life existed in this system at the time of planet formation. This molecule is one of the ingredients in the formation of RNA, which — like DNA, to which it is related — is one of the building blocks of life.

When I wrote my book about Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) in 1983, there was no evidence at all that any other stars even had planetary systems. But 41years later, astronomers have already discovered over 5000 exoplanets.

This supports my assertion, based on Kabbalistic teachings, that God didn’t create a universe with millions of billions of stars and leave it devoid of intelligent, spiritually aware lifeforms, with the only exception being on planet Earth. Earth-sized planets at the right distance to support carbon based life will be discovered in the next few years, and some of them will show signs of life.

Of course, life on earth took almost four billion years to evolve into intelligent life. Life on Earth began about 3.8 billion years ago, initially with single-celled prokaryotic cells, such as bacteria. Multicellular life evolved over a billion years later and it’s only in the last 570 million years that the kind of life forms we are familiar with began to evolve, starting with arthropods, followed by fish 530 million years ago (Mya), land plants 475 Mya and forests 385 Mya. Mammals didn’t evolve until 200 Mya and our own species, Homo sapiens, only 2-300,000 years ago.

So humans have been around for a mere 0.004% of the Earth’s history; and our technologically advanced civilization is only 0.1% of Homo Sapiens history. We do not know how long a technologically advanced civilization lasts. It is possible that thousands of scientifically advanced societies have arisen on other worlds and have long since died out.

In my introduction to Modern Kabbalah, “God, Sex and Kabbalah”, I devoted an entire chapter to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligent Life as evidence of God’s universal creation. In that chapter I point out that the key ingredient that is essential for two advanced civilizations to meet is the half-life of advanced civilizations.

If such civilizations last for only fifty to one hundred thousand years; the odds against their being close enough in both time and space to be in contact with us is millions to one.

Only advanced technology civilizations that achieve a fully peaceful society (called by Jews-The Messianic Age) have any chance to last the hundreds of thousands of years that would make interstellar contact possible. This is a religious and not a scientific issue.

All organisms on Planet Earth come from a single ancestor; and as far as we can tell, life only happened once. Photosynthesis evolved 1.5 billion years after the Earth’s formation, complex cells after 2.7 billion years, complex animals after 4 billion years, and human intelligence 4.5 billion years after the Earth formed.

That is a very long time; but God’s universe is 13.8 billion years old so there should be vast numbers of planets where life formed millions or even billions of years before us.

The Qur’an and the Hebrew Bible however teach that the Living God created the whole universe to be conducive to the universal evolution of life. The Qur’an says, “We have not sent you but as a blessing for all the worlds.” (Al-Anbiya 107) Many commentators say this refers to the 18,000 worlds created by Allah. Our world is one of them. (Mir’at-e-Kainat, vol.1, p.77). 

The Hebrew Bible says in the Zabur of Prophet David, King of Israel; “Your kingdom is a kingdom of all the worlds; and Your dominion is for all generations.” (Psalms 145:13) And the Zohar, the central book of Jewish mysticism, says there are 12,000 extraterrestrial (inhabited) worlds. (2:196a)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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