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A newly discovered exoplanet may support life ... but don't pack your bags yet

20 light years from Earth slumbers the red dwarf star Gliese 581.  Today a team of astronomers announced an astonishing discovery-- the star has a planet which is potentially habitable by humanity.

Over 200 so-called "exoplanets" -- planets outside our own solar system -- have already been found.  But so far, all of them have suffered from the "goldilocks problem," either too hot, too cold, or far too massive to support life.

But the new planet, which so far is only being called "c," is different.  It has an atmosphere, liquid water, a surface temperature estimated to range from 32 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.  It is roughly five times as massive as the earth but, due to a larger diameter, has a surface gravity only1.6 times that the Earth's.   It's also much closer to its parent star, having a 'year' only 13 days long.  The view from the surface would be spectacular, with the planet's sun appearing in the sky some 20 times larger than does our moon.

"On the treasure map of the Universe, one would be tempted to mark this planet with an X", says report co-author Xavier Delfosse of Grenoble University. "Liquid water is critical to life as we know it.  Because of its temperature and relative proximity, this planet will most probably be a very important target of future space missions dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life."

The team examined 100 different stars using the HARPS planet searcher at the European Southern Observatory in the Chilean Alps.

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Not so fast
By Griswold on 4/25/2007 11:16:55 AM , Rating: 3
It is not known for certain whether or not this planet has an atmosphere or liquid water. These are only posibilities based on simulations according to Stéphane Udry, one of the discoverers of this planet.

It is also possible that the star and its planet are tidally locked, which makes liquid water almost impossible because one side of the planet will be boiling hot and the other side freezing cold.

The US James Webb Telescope or the european Corot-satellite could help here. Direct spectrum analysis is required to determine the factors needed for the possibility of supporting life - something the wobble-technique cant deliver.

Nonetheless a sensational discovery and certainly the best of its kind so far.

RE: Not so fast
By Scimitar on 4/25/2007 12:15:48 PM , Rating: 2
Great news!

I agree that COROT (in orbit now) should be aimed at this star. Also, the Keplar mission, which launches in 2 years, is another good one for follow up studies.

As far as other ground based instruments that could do follow up studies, the VLTI and Keck Interferometer seam ideally suited with their high angular resolution.

It's too bad SIM Planetquest was delayed, that would be a great instrument for detailed analysis.

RE: Not so fast
By Symmetriad on 4/26/2007 12:32:38 PM , Rating: 2
Even if it is tidally locked, the "twilight" zone separating the night and day sides would likely provide a more temperate environment, more conducive to the existence of liquid water and life. The problem with that, of course, is that the constant clashing of hot and cold air would continuously mire that temperate band with colossal storms.

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