Earlier on the day of this noding, astronomers announced the discovery of Gliese 581g, the first relatively small planet (as little as three or four times the size of Earth, meaning a surface with a biologically reasonable 150% of Earth's gravity) to be found within the another star's habitable zone -- that is, the zone wherein water on the surface of the planet will consistently tend to remain liquid, and so able to support the sort of life which we are familiar with. As the name of the orb implies, it orbits the star Gliese 581, a dwarf star some 20 light years from Earth.

Now, this may seem a topical leap, but it reminds me how, as a child, I enjoyed playing that most ancient of computer games, Oregon Trail. We were pioneers, in that simple educational role play, travelling to an unsettled West, fording rivers with our wagon train and hunting buffalo and bear. And the game designer was thoughtful enough to place food and supplies at conveniently reachable points along the way. Naturally, were there no hyopthetical animals to hunt, nor bullets to buy, we would all have ended up laying beneath tombstones, dead from exhaustion (or dysentery).

When Oregon Trail was released, man had no firm knowledge of even a single extrasolar planet existing. True, such worlds had been a subject of speculation and imagination for centuries and a staple of science fiction for decades or more -- Star Trek was itself affectionately known by its creators as 'Wagon Train to the Stars.' And at least one such inhabited extrasolar planet (Kolob) even occurs in the Book of Mormon. But man's longtime conviction that such bodies exist was not borne out by observation until the early 1990s, which the first extrasolar planets were confirmed by examination of the wobbles of other stars, which inicated the presence of Jupiter-sized objects and bigger. Today, the number of planets confirmed is over 650 and growing steadily now, soon to be at a boom. And all indications point to multitudes of smaller planets just like Gliese 581g dotting our galaxy and similarly laying within the habitable ranges of their stars. Such worlds ought not to be particularly different from ours in terms of available elements; true though it is that our biota has changed our atmosphere over millions of centuries, rendering its current composition, but that is simply a matter of reorganization, the essence, the chemical capacity for the support life having been here since the start. So it seems we are discovering our galaxy and perhaps our Universe to be stocked with more and more potential convenient stopping points along the way to colonising our neighbouring stars. It seems, indeed, built into the very fabric of our Universe that we ought to be able to spread out into it, reaching those habitable worlds and thriving from one to the next.

It has been observed before that the capacity for intelligent life to evolve quickly enough to be able to appreciate the physical means by which our Universe originated appears built into the physics of our Universe, as well. Perhaps, then, we were meant not only to figure out the Big Bang and the expansion of our Universe and all of that -- but to glean a perspective from that knowledge, feeding the enablement of the means and motivation to engage in interstellar travel. And now we know that other stars have planets around them as well, possibly many more earthlike planets revealing themselves to our far-reaching telescopes and sensory arrays. And if this occurrence is more than sheer dumb luck, if it is built into the fabric of our Universe that we ought to be supported in spreading out into it, it seems almost absurd to suppose it not built in as well that there is other intelligent life out there whom we might encounter in these travels, and learn from and teach to.

Perhaps, then, in some greatly distant future, the children of the far off descendants of our species will be encouraged to play games which teach them how we made our own tentative steps outwards into our galaxy -- the Oregon Trail of our own time -- as we began fording our way across the Milky Way.

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