A Star-Crossed ‘Scientific Fact’: The Story Of Vulcan, Planet That Never Was – NPR STAFF Updated November 30, 20151:46 AM ET

There’s a common misconception that science is purely about cold, hard facts — concrete evidence, mathematical models and replicable experiments to explain the world around us.

It’s easy to forget that there are people behind the data and equations. And when people are involved, there is always room for human error.

The Hunt for Vulcan
The Hunt for Vulcan

And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe

by Thomas Levenson

In The Hunt For Vulcan, author Thomas Levenson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explores one glaring error that was taken as fact for more than 50 years: the belief that there was another planet in our solar system that we couldn’t see behind the sun.

The mistake started with good science, Levenson says: the observation of something odd, and the development of a reasonable hypothesis to explain it.

“In the mid-19th century, an extremely talented astronomer — a really, really top-flight guy — was studying the orbit of the planet Mercury, and he found that there was a wobble in it. There was an unexplained extra residue of motion,” Levenson tells NPR’s Michel Martin.

And, Levenson says that according to the prevailing science of the time, there was a clear explanation for that: “another planet that we hadn’t yet discovered, inside the orbit of Mercury, that could tug it just slightly off its expected course.”

Professor Thomas Levenson, during the History Channel 2008 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

After the theory was announced, both amateur and professional astronomers reported that they’d actually spotted the planet. The planet was named Vulcan, and its orbit was calculated. It all appeared quite cut and dry.

Then Albert Einstein came along.

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Philae’s battery is dead. But the mission was a huge success. Updated by Joseph Stromberg on November 15, 2014, 12:10 p.m. ET

57 hours after its landing on the comet 67P/G-C, the Philae lander has powered down after exhausting its battery life.Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at Nov 15, 2014 4.54

This happened a bit more quickly than planned, because Philae bounced twice after it landed, ending up in a shadowy crater, preventing its solar panels from much sunlight.

However, in terms of both scientific data and historical milestones, this mission was a huge success. In an extremely short time, the lander collected all sorts of information that will help us better understand the composition of comets. Additionally, the Rosetta orbiter will continue to orbit the comet for more than a year, collecting still more data.

Together, this research will help us better understand the solar system as a whole.

The latest news on Philae

When Philae landed, its harpoon system did not engage, leading the lander to take a few extremely long bounces, and ending up about a kilometer away from where scientists had planned. They’re still not exactly sure of its location, but hope to use high-resolution photos taken by the Rosetta orbiter to pinpoint it soon.

Because the lander came to rest in a shadowy crater, its solar panels were only about to collect about 90 minutes of sunlight every 12 hours, which meant the craft had to rely largely on its battery. Though ESA scientists used mechanical instruments on the craft to turn it slightly in hopes of getting more sunlight, the effort failed, and Philae powered down Friday evening (EST).

However, during its 57 hours of life on the comet, the craft successfully used all ten of its scientific instruments and gathered all sorts of data about its environment.

Perhaps the most exciting experiment was the plan to drill into the comet’s surface, collect a soil sample, and chemically analyze it. Due to the lander’s unstable position, it was uncertain whether this would be able to be carried out, but Philae successfully collected and analyzed a sample in its final hours, sending the data up to Rosetta.

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