Potentially Habitable Planet Found

| 73 Comments

Are you getting bored with Earth? Maybe you should consider a move to 581 c:

For the first time astronomers have discovered a planet outside our solar system that is potentially habitable, with Earth-like temperatures, a find researchers described Tuesday as a big step in the search for “life in the universe.”

The planet is just the right size, might have water in liquid form, and in galactic terms is relatively nearby at 120 trillion miles away. But the star it closely orbits, known as a “red dwarf,” is much smaller, dimmer and cooler than our sun.

But don’t pack your bags just yet…

There’s still a lot that is unknown about the new planet, which could be deemed inhospitable to life once more is known about it. And it’s worth noting that scientists’ requirements for habitability count Mars in that category: a size relatively similar to Earth’s with temperatures that would permit liquid water.

Still, it’s a neat find. No word yet if the planet is “designed for discovery”, but presumably anyone living there would have discovered those things that are easy to discover, and will therefore conclude that the planet must be situated just right for discovery. At least if their species has creationists.

Below the fold I’ll add some more excerpts from the article. Or you can just read the whole thing.

What they revealed is a planet circling the red dwarf star, Gliese 581. Red dwarfs are low-energy, tiny stars that give off dim red light and last longer than stars like our sun. Until a few years ago, astronomers didn’t consider these stars as possible hosts of planets that might sustain life.

The discovery of the new planet, named 581 c, is sure to fuel studies of planets circling similar dim stars. About 80 percent of the stars near Earth are red dwarfs.

The new planet is about five times heavier than Earth. Its discoverers aren’t certain if it is rocky like Earth or if its a frozen ice ball with liquid water on the surface. If it is rocky like Earth, which is what the prevailing theory proposes, it has a diameter about 1 1/2 times bigger than our planet. If it is an iceball, as Mayor suggests, it would be even bigger.

Based on theory, 581 c should have an atmosphere, but what’s in that atmosphere is still a mystery and if it’s too thick that could make the planet’s surface temperature too hot, Mayor said.

However, the research team believes the average temperature to be somewhere between 32 and 104 degrees and that set off celebrations among astronomers.

Until now, all 220 planets astronomers have found outside our solar system have had the “Goldilocks problem.” They’ve been too hot, too cold or just plain too big and gaseous, like uninhabitable Jupiter. […]

The new planet seems just right — or at least that’s what scientists think.

Eventually astronomers will rack up discoveries of dozens, maybe even hundreds of planets considered habitable, the astronomers said. But this one — simply called “c” by its discoverers when they talk among themselves — will go down in cosmic history as No. 1.

Besides having the right temperature, the new planet is probably full of liquid water, hypothesizes Stephane Udry, the discovery team’s lead author and another Geneva astronomer. But that is based on theory about how planets form, not on any evidence, he said.

73 Comments

120 Trillion miles… help me out: what’s that in light years? Is it in our arm? I suppose the star’s not visible with the naked eye, being a red dwarf, but is it near a brighter star? I’m excited.

Since this is a red dwarf sun, is the planet tidally “locked”? That is, is there any way of knowing if it is rotating?

1 ly = 5.879 x 10E12 mi. = 5,879,000,000,000 miles.

581 c at 120 trillion miles is 120 x 10E12 miles away

So, 120 / 5.879 = 20.41 ly.

Not far at all. In fact, c circles one of the 100 closest stars to our solar system.

It’s in the constellation of Libra.

Not far at all.

I like the way you think.

Thanks for the info.

No word yet if the planet is “designed for discovery”, but presumably anyone living there would have discovered those things that are easy to discover, and will therefore conclude that the planet must be situated just right for discovery. At least if their species has creationists.

Steve once again wins the Hilarious Anti-creationist Sarcasm Award for the month…

A planet that massive might have the problem of being so smooth it has a global ocean, which probably would make it tough to produce the concentration mechanisms (evaporation in pools etc.) that might be required for the origin of life. But you never know…

Anyway, give it 10 or 20 years and we will have earth-sized extrasolar planets coming out our ears, it’s pretty clear that virtually ever star in a one-star system, and even many stars in double- and triple-star systems, has got planets, it’s just a matter of detection limits at this point (currently we can only detect plants that are (1) big and (2) close-in.

PP prediction: When we find planets designed for observation they will be habitable! Bingo!

It’s in the constellation of Libra.

Hey! I’m a Libra. More evidence for design.

Sorry for the rudeness, but:

Goddam, that is cool.

Anyway, give it 10 or 20 years and we will have earth-sized extrasolar planets coming out our ears, …

You should go and see a doctor about that.

Bob

You should go and see a doctor about that.

Before it’s too late for the rest of us!

Isn’t there a better name than “581c”? Romulus or something?

Maybe this is the planet the Intelligent Designers came from.

Since this is a red dwarf sun, is the planet tidally “locked”? That is, is there any way of knowing if it is rotating?

I think it would be impossible to tell without knowing the planet’s composition (so you could estimate tidal deformation and dissipation) and its initial rotational velocity.

Prediction:

If the planet turns out to be unhospitable for life, creationists will say this proves the special character of planet Earth, which is the only one with the right characteristics for life and must obviously have been designed so.

On the other hand, if the planet turns out to be hospitable for life, creationists will say that the basic constants of the universe are especially fine-tuned so that many planets can support life, and this was obviously designed so.

Typical ethnopocentric use of the word “discovery.” Don’t forget, Jesus was already there.

http://tinyurl.com/2khfrr

Isn’t there a better name than “581c”? Romulus or something?

How about “Underprivileged Planet” ?

Could this planet be the location where the DI has been building its extensive network of top secret ID research labs?

Overton Wrote:

Sure, all IDists have a religous agenda.

There, I fixed the typo for you.

Overton… wtf? (pardon my french)

Oh, and what is the ‘evil atheist agenda’ by the way?

“Isn’t there a better name than “581c”? Romulus or something?”

If it does turn out to have water, I do kind of like “Eden”, just for the fun of it. :)

With the earth at the centre of a search and the first “Goldilocks” planet discovered a mere 20ly away, what does this do to the Drake equations when the (so far) the density of habital plants is 2 in 30,000 cu ly?

Amazing discovery…all we need now is a few more and the ability to do spectropsy on the planets. It’ll come.

Nick Wrote:

Isn’t there a better name than “581c”? Romulus or something?

I suggest the name “Pluto” after the Greek god of the underworld. Since there are no planets named Pluto, this would be a good fit.

A planet that massive might have the problem of being so smooth it has a global ocean, which probably would make it tough to produce the concentration mechanisms (evaporation in pools etc.) that might be required for the origin of life.

LOL!

But you never know…

Yup!

Moronic statement of the week by Overton follows. Potentially habitable planet found.…lots of beating around the bush… Therefore, there is no God.

The discovery of a planet with just about the right conditions (initially) to suspect the sustainability of life has no bearing what so ever with believing in God or not. These fundies are really a beauty. Their stupidity is only surpassed by their mouths.

Now be a good fundie and crawl back into the hole you came from, OK?

Since this is a red dwarf sun, is the planet tidally “locked”? That is, is there any way of knowing if it is rotating?

I don’t think there’s anyway to know for certain, at this point, but it’s proximity to the parent star suggests that it would most likely be tidally locked (like our moon). How exactly that would effect the climate I’m not sure.

Overton,

I can make a tire wihout rubber. Therefore rubber does not exist.

Doug S: if this planet is tidally locked, then the day side will be unbearably hot, and the night side unbearably cold. If the planet is covered with water, then all that water will be continually carrying heat from the day side to the night side – not an ocean-current pattern I’d want to sail in. I couldn’t say how much that water would do to equalize temperatures between the day and night extremes.

The weather on such a planet – assuming it has an atmosphere, which, given an Earth-like size, it would probably have – would be…interesting.

Still, it’s a neat find. No word yet if the planet is “designed for discovery”, but presumably anyone living there would have discovered those things that are easy to discover, and will therefore conclude that the planet must be situated just right for discovery. At least if their species has creationists.

So are Mars and Venus though. Both are within the “habitable zone” in our own solar system but both are so very different from the Earth.

Still, I’m sure the YEC’s will claim that this discovery confirms creation and a young Earth (like they did with “hot Jupiters”). It’s bound to feature in AiG’s “news to note” this coming weekend !

Raging Bee Wrote:

if this planet is tidally locked, then the day side will be unbearably hot, and the night side unbearably cold. If the planet is covered with water, then all that water will be continually carrying heat from the day side to the night side — not an ocean-current pattern I’d want to sail in. I couldn’t say how much that water would do to equalize temperatures between the day and night extremes.

Yes, I agree, although our experience with tidally locked planets is limited … there’s the moon and Mercury, which have no atmosphere, and Venus*, which has a super-dense atmosphere and no ocean. I don’t know of any planets with a liquid ocean which also are tidally locked, so any statement on the climate of such a planet would be just a hypothesis or conjecture at this point. I’m sure people will soon be firing up the computer models to try to get more detailed answers, but they’ll still be quite rudimentary and not well tested (look at how well we can model our own climate given the extensive dataset that we have)**.

I do agree with you that the weather patterns would be very interesting! As would be the life that could tolerate such conditions!

Doug S

* Mercury and Venus are not completely tidally locked, but they have extremely long days, and would be the best example of what a completely tidally locked planet would have. Also, for an observer on the moon, a “day” with respect to the sun would be a month long, or one lunar revolution, since the same face always points towards the Earth.

** I’m not suggesting that climate scientists are wrong, just that it has taken an incredible amount of work (and data) to get the consensus that they have now.

Raging Bee Wrote:

Doug S: if this planet is tidally locked, then the day side will be unbearably hot, and the night side unbearably cold.

Actually, according to the Bad Astronomy blog, that’s not necessarily the case:

If so, how does this [tidal locking] affect the atmosphere? Models indicate that the air should carry the warmth of the star around the planet, so the temperatures should actually be fairly moderate on both the day and night sides of such a world. But if it’s covered by an ocean, how does having one side of the planet eternally locked into daylight affect it?

Criminy, what would life be like on a tidally-locked ocean world?

So the atmosphere would apparently be more or less moderate across the planet, but the ocean (if there is one) would probably transfer heat more slowly, and thus you’d see some significant differences in temperature. It’d make for some interesting weather, that’s for sure.

Steve: how effective would the atmosphere be in moderating the GROUND temperature? I’m no expert, of course, but it seems to me that the ground on the day side of a tidally-locked planet would pick up and store too much heat for an atmosphere to distribute to the night side. That is, after all, a LOT of rock to cool on one side, and a lot of rock to heat on the other.

This would probably not be a problem if the entire surface was covered by a global ocean, which would act as both a heat-exchanger and a shield.

There would still be a tidal bulge even if the planet did not rotate relative to it. It would just be stationary relative to the planet. But other tides from other planets.…hmmm. Could be interesting. The planet is orbiting farther out from the star than our earthlike planet, according to what you just said. So, the tide would be more of a wobble back and forth as the other planet passes by (or more correctly, is passed by our earthlike planet) in their orbits, rather than a rotation around the planet.

The bigger planet is actually inside the orbit of the Earthlike one. Then there is a smaller planet much further out.

One might think that 2 planets close in like that would have to have some kind of orbital resonance or something, I have not seen this suggested though.

Heck, if 581c has a moon it might still be rotating, rather than tidally locked to the star. OTOH the kinds of orbital migration and close encounter events that move planets close in are probably not kind to moons.

The bigger planet is actually inside the orbit of the Earthlike one. Then there is a smaller planet much further out.

Sorry. I read

the neighbor planet is 15.6 times more massive than Earth and may get within 12.5 Earth-Moon distances

to be “12.5 Earth-Sun distances”.

It would still primarily generate a wobble rather than a rotational tide, as long as the large planet and smaller planet are not orbiting each other.

Heh. The creationists don’t like this one bit. Guillermo Gonzalez of the Discovery Institute says:

You are right about the host star being an M dwarf posing problems for habitability. The smallest planet’s eccentricity is comparable to that of Mercury, so it is probably locked into a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance. So, the planet will experience large temperature variations over the course of its orbit. What’s more, because its rotation is slower, it should have a weaker magnetic field and be subject to enhanced solar wind stripping of its atmosphere. Finally, the fact that it has a mass at least 5x Earth’s means that it will have a high surface gravity and less surface relief than the Earth – meaning no dry land.

Hmm…something seems a bit fishy to me here.

You are right about the host star being an M dwarf posing problems for habitability. The smallest planet’s eccentricity is comparable to that of Mercury, so it is probably locked into a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance. So, the planet will experience large temperature variations over the course of its orbit.

Its oh-so-long…13-day orbit. I guess the “days” would then be about 20 days long. There’s no way anything could survive a hot or cold period 20 days long! I mean, it’s obviously impossible!

What’s more, because its rotation is slower, it should have a weaker magnetic field and be subject to enhanced solar wind stripping of its atmosphere.

Let’s see, a “day” 20 days long – that’s 0.05 of Earth’s rotation rate. A mass 5 times that of Earth, hmm, as a wild guess let’s say 5 times the magnetic field. So, the magnetic field would be 0.25 that of Earth’s. Yeah, there’s no way that could work. Just look at Venus with practically no rotation and no magnetic field, I mean, her atmosphere is gon–hmm.

Finally, the fact that it has a mass at least 5x Earth’s means that it will have a high surface gravity and less surface relief than the Earth – meaning no dry land.

Yeah, so the atmosphere is being stripped off so there’s clearly no way liquid water could persist without boiling off in the low pressure–no, wait a minute, there’s so much water there’s no land!

Yeah, so the atmosphere is being stripped off so there’s clearly no way liquid water could persist without boiling off in the low pressure—no, wait a minute, there’s so much water there’s no land!

well THAT explains the whole noah’s ark thing.

it didn’t happen on THIS planet.

damn alien bible.

As I understand it, bandersnatchi are irreligious so don’t have mass.

That’s only true on Sundays.

120 Trillion miles… help me out: what’s that in light years?

Um, if you need help with that, what wouldn’t you need help with? 120,000,000,000,000 miles / (~186000 miles/sec) /(60*60*24*365 sec/year) = ~20 years (more precision is silly, given the imprecision of “120 trillion”).

Isn’t there a better name than “581c”? Romulus or something?

The astronomers are informally calling it simply “c”.

Random notes from the web:

- Gliese 581 has half the metallicity of Earth, which fits that it (and many more M stars) can have these dense planets that are assumed.

- The hefty volume to surface ratio of the large core means more heat flow, so more energy for life to play with.

- The star is about the same age as ours. Time enough for life…

- It seems confirmed that earlier SETI search were mere minutes in general searches, and that people wants to make a dedicated search now. Perhaps also a new first, from planet search to SETI search…

GvlGeologist Wrote:

My understanding was that the standing hypothesis for the lack of PT on Venus is that the lithosphere of Venus is simply too warm to subduct. This agrees with the current leader for the cause of plate tectonics: the weight of the subducting (downgoing) plate. This is bsed on a correlation between plate speed and subduction zone length.

Which in turn is news to me.

I guess I liked the water hypothesis for the cool images of the measurements, and for the likeness to the old and in a way lovely Gaia hypothesis.

(The Gaia proponents could use some facts that was later found to be in error. IIRC that some oxidized minerals were more malleable at some pressures and heats, and thus suggesting life creating an oxygen atmosphere sustained the habitable environment.)

If there is a correlation found for the subduction zone, I prefer that explanation for the time being. Also, a selfcontained process is more likely to explain our PT, all else equal.

Nick Wrote:

One might think that 2 planets close in like that would have to have some kind of orbital resonance

Seems correct, IIRC it was suggested and accepted on some of the astronomy blogs that could mean a lock similar to, but not quite, 1:1 was possible.

The basic lock seems fairly certain, people references model work on similar systems.

Even though the massive planet has ~ 10 times the angular momenta of Earth, it is ~ 30 times more affected by its sun (distance and mass), not counting the effect of water. And since the star is about the same age as ours, planets have had plenty of time to waste momenta and lock.

Nick Wrote:

OTOH the kinds of orbital migration and close encounter events that move planets close in are probably not kind to moons.

You could check the model papers. IIRC some of them shows disturbed planetesimals that could be caught later.

PG Wrote:

That’s only true on Sundays.

That would make their mass complex.

That would make their mass complex.

Ahem. Please attend to the following lesson by Lewis Carroll:

‘You are sad,’ the Knight said in an anxious tone: ‘let me sing you a song to comfort you.’

‘Is it very long?’ Alice asked, for she had heard a good deal of poetry that day.

‘It’s long,’ said the Knight, ‘but very, VERY beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it–either it brings the TEARS into their eyes, or else–‘

‘Or else what?’ said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.

‘Or else it doesn’t, you know. The name of the song is called “HADDOCKS’ EYES.”’

‘Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it?’ Alice said, trying to feel interested.

‘No, you don’t understand,’ the Knight said, looking a little vexed. ‘That’s what the name is CALLED. The name really IS “THE AGED AGED MAN.”’

‘Then I ought to have said “That’s what the SONG is called”?’ Alice corrected herself.

‘No, you oughtn’t: that’s quite another thing! The SONG is called “WAYS AND MEANS”: but that’s only what it’s CALLED, you know!’

‘Well, what IS the song, then?’ said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

‘I was coming to that,’ the Knight said. ‘The song really IS “A-SITTING ON A GATE”: and the tune’s my own invention.’

Re “That would make their mass complex.”

So part of it would be imaginary?

Henry

Henry J Wrote:

So part of it would be imaginary?

Um, I haven’t worked with QFT but perhaps the following could happen:

Tachyons have imaginary mass.

To bring out a complex mass, specifically changing between real and imaginary values, I guess a sew-saw mechanism would be appropriate. (Such as the one who gives neutrino masses and makes them oscillate between different types.)

I don’t think it works in that way. But bandersnatchi are mythical beings - presumably they can do what they want.

Hmm. Do we have a ‘scientifically truthiness’ proof that virtual religious personalities are a bit unstable? I wonder what Salvador Cordova would say, it seems like these things are up his a…lley.

I must amend my earlier comment. Of course I didn’t mean that “virtual religious personalities are a bit unstable”. I must interpret it as “virtual religious personalities are a bit shifty”. How silly of me!

Also, I came up with a “Salvador Cordova ™ physically truthiness” argument for why this must be. Bandersnatchi are usually easy personalities, jumping about with great abandon and haste (tachyonic state). But on Sundays suddenly time seems to drag along (not so tachyonic state).

I blame the church. ;-)

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Reuland published on April 24, 2007 5:58 PM.

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