A New Earth?

space_ngc7331A team of astronomers discovers a distant planet with conditions that may be “just right” for life
A team of astronomers based at UC Santa Cruz and the Carnegie Institution of Washington has announced the discovery of a planet in another solar system that has some of the Goldilocks conditions for sustaining life.

The team, led by Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC, and Paul Butler from the Carnegie Institution, announced its findings on Sept. 29 of an Earth-sized planet located squarely within its host star’s “habitable stone.”

The planet is currently being called Gliese 581g. It rotates around its sun Gliese 581, a star 20 light years away from Earth that can be seen by human eyes in the constellation Libra. This star has been a controversial planet-bearing red dwarf that has sparked much debate among planet hunters. As of now, its total planet tally is six—and Gliese 581g is not its first orbiter suspected of being suitable for life. Two previously discovered Gliese 581 acolytes lie on the fringes of the habitable zone (the distance from the sun that would allow liquid water to exist) but Gliese 581g orbits in the range that is “just right,” according to Vogt.

However, even though the planet may meet the frequently elusive conditions for sustaining life, Earthlings should note that the classification “potentially habitable” is not synonymous with temperate or pleasant. Gliese 581g would be anything but pleasant for a terrestrial visitor; the planet is tidally locked, so half the planet always faces the sun while the other half rests in eternal darkness, making extreme regional climates. The areas thought to be habitable—the terminators—are in the border zones between the darkness and the light.

Though its local climates may radically vary from Earth’s, the findings suggest that the two planets have other similarities. Though it is three to four times larger than our host planet, its mass suggests a rocky planet that could support an atmosphere.

These findings are based on 11 years of telescopic observation. Though light years away, in the scale of the universe, Gliese 581 is a neighboring star, which leads Vogt to believe that that there are many stars that have solar systems containing potentially habitable planets throughout the universe. “If these are rare, we shouldn’t have found one so quickly and so nearby,” he said in a Sept. 29 UCSC press release. “There could be tens of billions of these systems in our galaxy.”

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