A sketch of the new "potentially habitable" planet by Lynette Cook.
Over the past decade, scientists have discovered hundreds of planets around neighboring stars. The problem was that these were mostly gas giants, some even bigger than Jupiter—hardly the kind of planet where you’d want to bring up your kids. All of that has changed however, thanks to a team of astronomers from UCSC and the Carnegie Institution of Washington.
Somewhere out there in the constellation Libra, they’ve found, Gliese 581g, a planet just three times larger than earth, which lies right in the middle of the star's "habitable zone.” In other words, the temperature is just right for liquid water, and under the right conditions, for life itself to survive and thrive. Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and co-head of the Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey, says that the planet was found in the ninth star system that his team studied. “The fact that we were able to detect this planet so quickly and so nearby tells us that planets like this must be really common,” he explains.
Nearby, of course, is a relative term, given the vastness of space. At the current rate of space travel, it could take as long as 220 years to reach the planet. That’s many generations of backseat astronauts asking, “Are we there yet?” Furthermore, the planet is in some ways more similar to Mercury than Earth in that it is tidally locked to its star. In other words, one side always faces the star and is always in hot and bright, while the other side is cold and dark. But then there is the temperate zone, where the two sides meet. That would be the habitable area. Still, Vogt says that, “Any emerging life forms would have a wide range of stable climates to choose from and to evolve around, depending on their longitude.” In fact, Vogt believes that “chances for life on this planet are 100 percent.”
Even if this planet isn’t the one we that we one day call home, its discovery indicates that there are many more Earthlike planets out there than astronomers previously expected. Vogt estimates their number in the tens of billions. We just have to keep looking.
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