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First earthlike and possibly habitable exoplanet found nearby

Planet 581c sits under the glowering red dwarf Gliese 581.
Planet 581c sits under the glowering red dwarf Gliese 581.Karen Wehrstein

Well, nearby is relative in interstellar space. The new planet, estimated by NASA researchers to be about three times as massive as the earth, orbits a red dwarf star called Gliese 581 every 36 days at a distance of about 13 million miles. The system is about 20 light-years away from earth. That's more than 100 trillion miles! Even the fastest spacecraft ever flown, Voyagers 1 and 2, would take hundreds of thousand of years to reach the planet, designated 581g. We won't be visiting up close anytime soon.

But better and better telescopes are under construction and planned for the near future, both on earth and in space. Starting with NASA's James Webb Space Telescope in 2014, followed by even more advanced arrays, and supplemented by ground based observatories using a new generation of adaptive optics like the Very Large telescope. With these and future devices, it's just a matter of time before astronomers will be able to image planets like Gliese 581g and even get data on chemical composition. That's important, because 581g is about 13 million miles away form its star, which puts it smack dab in the middle of Gliese's Goldilock's zone, not too hot, not too cold, just right for water to exist as a liquid.

Whether there actually is liquid water on 581g is unknown. At three times earth's mass the surface gravity would be about twice what we're used to and plenty powerful enough to hang onto a substantial atmosphere. It could be well be swathed in a thick insulating blanket of gas, something like a cold Venus. And because it orbits between two over-sized super-earths, 581c and 581d, the planet may be heated by tidal flexing and be dotted with volcanoes constantly spewing gas. 

So it's a good guess, based on the only terrestrial planets and large moons we have examined up close in our own solar system, that the atmosphere might contain nitrogen and/or carbon dioxide. But 581g could be an ocean planet like a super Europa, or a methane world like a super Titan, or something we have no inkling of because it's totally outside of our experience. Or it could be a rocky world with a mantle of compounds of silica and carbon, a nickel-iron core, and warm surface oceans. And that has astronomers excited.

It would mean Gliese 581g might be habitable, as in a number of species of bacteria from earth could survive and flourish on it. Plus the star is very old, about 7 to 11 billion years old, roughly twice as old as the earth and sun. That means if anything complex has been happening on 581g, it's now had a long, long time to evolve.

One scientist has even gone so far as to speculate the odds of life existing on 581g are "one-hundred percent". That's quite a bold claim, and without more data on the planet's composition and atmosphere, it's quite a stretch to say the least. But red dwarf stars like Gliese 581 are extremely common in our galaxy. There's billions of them, meaning potentially billions of earth-like worlds circling quietly that we currently know nothing about. In fact, NASA's Kepler Mission, only one year into its five-year mission, suggests that smaller, earth-like worlds may be the norm in our galaxy! If so, the odds of life existing on at least one, or a few, or millions, should be pretty good.

Anyway, the image above which was featured on the Astronomy Picture of the Day was produced by my artist friend Karen Wehrstein, and the video below, are about Gliese 581c, but we now think 581c is a little too close, a little too warm. The illustrations could well a better representation of 581g for all we know. We hope to have a new artist's conception of the surface of 581g later today. Speaking of which, we need a better name than 581g, what would you suggest?

Winner of the best name gets a free signed copy of American Taliban.

Comments

  • Profile picture of Amanda Evrard
    Amanda Evrard 4 years ago

    Peersonally I think Planet G is the perfect name!

  • s katz 4 years ago

    Planet Speculative Hope

  • Bluejessamine 4 years ago

    Themyscira.

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Hope

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Not Ours. Stop trying to colonize things, the natives don't appreciate it. Do you think Native Americans appreciate white colonizers?

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Plan B

  • Patriot Daily 4 years ago

    This comment was posted by me. why does it say anonymous?

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Fresh Kills Landfill 2

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Alpha (581g)

  • terrypinder 4 years ago

    Eos Eterna

  • comeaug 4 years ago

    Planet "ILSP"- Intelligent Life Still Possible!

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Liberal Refuge

  • Blackbrant 4 years ago

    "Bertha". After all, we named our own wonderful planet from the German/Norse name for dirt; we should name the first known potentially life-bearing planet outside our own solar system something equally prosaic. "Bertha" for that Earth-mother kind of effect. Also, it's a bit bigger than our own planet.

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Terra Nova - New Earth

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Rigel 7

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Frist

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Gallifrey.

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Twilight. Since it's tidally locked and all.

  • McGirk 4 years ago

    Discordia

  • forethought 4 years ago

    Pyrite (for reasons that will become clearer as they gather more data)

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Humans - so egocentric - maybe the current inhabitants already have a name for it....

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    There probably aren't any, and if there are I think we can defer to them 40+ years from now when we find out what they call it.

  • democracy_inaction 4 years ago

    How embarrassing would it be to find out that there are human-like inhabitants on that planet and that they call theirs "earth" too? Like showing up to prom in the same dress as someone else...

  • Scott Trombetta 4 years ago

    Tabula rasa
    ...maybe we won't destroy this one so quickly

  • pheedthemonkey 4 years ago

    Urf

  • democracy_inaction 4 years ago

    ...still laughing at this!

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    How about "please don't call me earth". I know it's a little long, but I know if I were that planet and I knew anything about this planet, I wouldn't want to be call by the same name.

  • Bkrainock 4 years ago

    Libertarian Paradise

  • btr0813 4 years ago

    A place devoid of intelligent life but with native bacteria? I'm naming this planet "Wasilla."

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Farth (Far Earth)

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    The anti-Christ

  • chvu 4 years ago

    Sagan

    (A worthy tribute to the great man)

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    EARTH.2

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Eden

  • bill.dietz 4 years ago

    I'd go with 'Horizon'... both for being the first of (I have no doubt) many more planets discovered of it's type and also because it is a gravitationally locked planet, one side always facing the sun the other away. Therefor the temperate zone would be the band between the dark and lights sides, putting the sun always on the horizon as it were. ;-)

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    How about ...

    LAT -- Let's Ask Them

  • tegrat 4 years ago

    Claire

  • AdamJ 4 years ago

    Geminos Terra - Earth's Twin

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Persephone

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Planet Badass

  • CJAllen 4 years ago

    En-gedi

    (oasis on the Dead Sea, literally "spring of the kid")

  • SpaceLifeForm 4 years ago

    Wingnuttia.

    Because the planet is tidally locked and can't change it's view.

  • Idea Man 4 years ago

    Kevin

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Let's see, it is the child of a red dwarf, and might be able to sustain life but nobody's certain about that yet. How about Kim Jong Un?

  • Seldom Seen Schmidt 4 years ago

    Mulligan

  • magnetmann 4 years ago

    Terra minor

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    Nutsackistan

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    How about GOP Proposed Palestinian Homeland?

  • Hal Cohen 4 years ago

    3 times earth's mass, orbiting a red dwarf, and one-sided (to its star) I've got to go with Limbaugh

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    How about Imagine..Who would object to being called Imaginesians?

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