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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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By Moishe on 4/25/2007 12:06:59 PM , Rating: 3
The interesting part will be when they finally focus some good instruments on this thing and see what kind of atmosphere, etc are there. It's exciting to find something so close to us in that form, but there is a very large chance that it'll end up being uninhabitable. Cannot wait to find out. I bet NASA or Japan or ESU or someone will send a probe out there... problem is, it will take forever to get there. Heck, it took the Voyagers 30 years to get to the edge or our solar system (about 100au).

At the rate voyager traveled so far (100au in 30 years) it would take ~390,000 years to get to this exoplanet. Not that it would require that to better study it... but even halving the distance is still a loooong time.

RE: yup
By Spivonious on 4/25/2007 12:38:12 PM , Rating: 2
Good point. I think we need to concentrate on a better propulsion system before we start looking at planets at unreachable distances.

RE: yup
By crtnkls on 4/25/2007 1:17:01 PM , Rating: 2
That's true, but there is something even more dangerous that needs to be solved first. If we get our spaceships traveling close to the speed of light even the most minute particle could tear a hole into the ship.

That's why bullets work. Small things moving fast. In this case its a small thing hitting a large thing that is moving fast.

RE: yup
By Moishe on 4/25/2007 1:22:59 PM , Rating: 2
I think actual human travel at that kind of distance is literally beyond our comprehension at this point. However a robot ship (a probe) could travel very fast and not need the human compatible part of the ship to weigh it down.

We could slap a very tough shield on it and make it nuke powered like the Voyagers so that it can withstand higher speeds and have adequate long term power.

Or for cheaper.... we could build a bigger and better space telescope that will bridge the distance without actually bridging the distance. Not sure how much gain can be had over current telescopes. I guess we can simply build them bigger and bigger.

RE: yup
By Ringold on 4/25/2007 1:31:17 PM , Rating: 2
With our current technology I see no point in even dreaming about sending anything other than radio waves to other stars.. I love Trek and all, but like you said, we can get massive amounts of science done from here for what it'd cost.

I think the idea behind some new telescopes is along the lines of the VLA; many of them working together over a vast distance in orbit. That's the TPF if I recall correctly.

I havent taken physics since high school, I'll admit, but considering how much has changed since I just took an astronomy course a few years ago I'd be surprised if huge advances couldn't be made.

RE: yup
By masher2 on 4/25/2007 1:51:19 PM , Rating: 4
There's actually a method we could cheaply send a probe to another planet with technology very little beyond our own. The bulk of the probe would be an extremely light solar sail a few dozens of atoms thick. Unfurled near the sun, it would rapidly accelerate to several percent of the speed of light.

The total instrumentation package would need to be a few grams or less, but still retain enough functionality to make the endeavor worthwhile. With current advances in nanotechnology and materials science, such construction might be practical in 20-30 years.

RE: yup
By PrezWeezy on 4/25/2007 2:42:28 PM , Rating: 2

Thats a link to a group who created a teleporter with the ability to move something 18 inches through light. It's a very interesting thought that we may be able to move objects from here out to any inhabitable planet using the speed of light itself.

RE: yup
By masher2 on 4/25/2007 3:02:53 PM , Rating: 2
Unfortunately, quantum teleportation doesn't actually move matter (or even energy)'re really only moving information...the quantum state of a particular system. And even that is limited to speed-of-light considerations.

RE: yup
By PrezWeezy on 4/25/2007 6:44:27 PM , Rating: 2
You are right...for now. But it's an advance. He said there was no point in thinking about it and I was simply stating that "Beam me up, Scotty" may exist in the forseable future. And if it did, we could certainly move from planet to planet much faster.

RE: yup
By Ramshambo on 4/26/2007 12:06:51 PM , Rating: 2
If you are able to transmit data at the speed of light, wouldn't that be something that could be used for interstellar communications? Or do radio waves already move that fast? Kinda interesting actually. And yeah I know, if it were to travel at the speed of light it would take 20 years to get there.

RE: yup
By Kuroyama on 4/26/2007 8:36:50 PM , Rating: 2
Radio waves, visible light, microwaves, X-rays, etc. are all forms of electromagnetic radiation and should all travel at the same speed through a vacuum.

RE: yup
By greenchasch on 4/25/2007 3:04:33 PM , Rating: 2
Interstellar space is pretty empty. If we ever do get something moving near the speed of light, there isn't much worry about hitting anything.

RE: yup
By Korvon on 4/25/2007 3:29:17 PM , Rating: 2
Then there is the odd little slow-down problem...,3605,658...

RE: yup
By AzureKevin on 4/25/2007 3:51:16 PM , Rating: 2
Actually, for what it is, 20 light years isn't bad. The closest star(s) to our sun, Proxima Centauri (and Alpha Centauri, since they're a double star system), is about 4.2 light years away. Relatively speaking 20 light years isn't so bad!

This discovery is actually pretty promising; I would've never expected a human-habitable planet to be only 20 light years away. Sure we'll never be able to get there with our current technology, but who's to say what we'll have in a century or two.

The funny thing is, if we did send a spaceship to travel to this new planet right now, a more technologically advanced spaceship that we might be able to develop in only a few decades would probably be able to catch up to the old spaceship and go passed it.

RE: yup
By Hare on 4/25/2007 4:27:03 PM , Rating: 2
The funny thing is, if we did send a spaceship to travel to this new planet right now, a more technologically advanced spaceship that we might be able to develop in only a few decades would probably be able to catch up to the old spaceship and go passed it.

Another thing to consider is that we would have a 20 year delay before hearing about the thing once it landed. Kind of like looking through a telescope and seeing stuff that has actually happened 20 years ago.

RE: yup
By exanimas on 4/25/2007 5:10:38 PM , Rating: 3
Ha, wouldn't it be ironic if that planet actually blew up 19 or so years ago and we sent something to look at it before seeing that?

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