A watery neighbour round a friendly local red dwarf

I remember, as a kid, when the first planets outside our solar system were discovered. But these strange new worlds, inferred largely through watching the gravitationally-induced wobble in “nearby” stars (where “nearby” means stars whose light only took decades or centuries to reach us rather than millennia), were all very different to the planets in our own solar system. Not only did many make Jupiter look like a minnow, they seemed to like getting up close and personal with their parent star. With conjectured surface temperatures hot enough to melt steel, let alone lead, the large number of such planets discovered started to lend some credibility to the Rare Earth hypothesis, which claims that complex life is rare (or even unique to Earth) because planets, like Earth, capable of supporting life are exceedingly uncommon.

As one who has not entirely given up the Star Trek dream of meeting three different alien species a week, therefore, it’s exciting to hear that the most Earth-like planet yet has been discovered. Gliese 581, an otherwise undistinguished little minnow of a red dwarf star about 20 light years up the road from the Sun, has three planets orbiting around it. One of them, with the rather undistinguished name Gliese 581 c, is a planet rather different to the heaving “hot Jupiters” that have been found so far. With a mass roughly 5 times that of Earth, and a diameter conjectured to be about 50% larger, the planet’s orbit is such that liquid water could exist on its surface, and modelling suggests that it will either have a rocky surface like our own Earth, or possibly be covered with oceans.

Nobody has actually seen Gliese 581c; imaging it directly is still beyond the capabilities of our best telescopes. And so we don’t know whether it’s “tidally locked” to its star in the same way the moon is tidally locked to the Earth; if so, it may well be that its sunny side is unbearably hot, its dark side unbearably cold – though, again, computer modelling suggests that an atmosphere might circulate enough heat to avoid that.

To get a decent look at this planet – and the others like it we’ll almost certainly find over the next few years – we’ll probably have to wait a decade or two for NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder or the European Space Agency’s Darwin project. But now we at least know that they’ll have some very interesting places to look. Maybe we’ll see some Star Trek aliens waving back down the telescope lens…

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Posted in science
35 comments on “A watery neighbour round a friendly local red dwarf
  1. tigtog says:

    we don’t know whether it’s “tidally lockedâ€? to its star

    A talking head whose name I didn’t catch was telling Virginia Trioli that it is tide-locked, but of course being morning radio he wasn’t handing out footnotes with cites.

    It is pretty exciting to find a Goldilocks* planet so cosmologically nearby.

    * not too hot, not too cold

  2. Kang says:

    Rygel 7 will be avenged.

  3. su says:

    I bet the spacesquid have got there firs, but it Is exciting.

  4. Zwilnik says:

    Rygel 7 will be avenged.

    In your dreams, tentacle boy. Would you like another negasphere up your propulsion siphon? Can do.

    Oh yes, Tellurians, lovely, sweet blue Gliese 581c awaits you, ripe ripe for colonisation and exploitation.
    So load up your fusion-powered people movers with your juicy Hot Gossip desperate soccer milfs and your Ralphboy webgirl pentmates and set the controls for the sunsplashed duty-free tax havens of the Gliese system.

    Yes, a new life awaits you in the off-world colonies, nowhere, remotely anywhere near the Boskonian zone of influence.

  5. Prostetnic Vogon Vlirm says:

    Don’t you know this world has been demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass? If you had bothered to turn on your hyperwave you would have known this. Otherwise the light from this event will reach your world in ten orbital revolutions.

  6. Peter Kemp says:

    The important factor is the estimated temperature of between 0 and 40 degrees temperature–ie potentially life supporting.

    This find in a ‘Goldilocks’ area of a red dwarf, adds to the plausibility of the probability argument of abiogenesis also occurring on perhaps billions of earth-like exoplanets in the universe, perhaps millions in our own galaxy. It may be possible (so I’ve read) before too long that we may be able to detect the atmosphere of Gliese’s 3rd exoplanet [2 already but one the size of Jupiter approximately] . If methane was detected, it would be another indicator of life.

    1) Darwinian theory explains the evolution of life on earth by natural selection, as distinct from the advent of the first self replicating molecule.
    2) Discoveries of life on Mars or exoplanets illuminates the probability argument for one off abiogenesis, ie the Urey Miller experiment that created amino acids was most likely the intermediate step for the first self-replicating molecule here and elsewhere in the universe.
    3) Cosmological theory including string theory, inflationary theory appears to be advancing at an exponential rate. The universe may have been created out of nothing.

    Conclusion: Three cheers for scientists and down with creationists and IDiots.

  7. murgatroid says:

    “The universe may have been created out of nothing.

    Conclusion: Three cheers for scientists and down with creationists and IDiots.”

    Just the other day I made a brand new Pentium 4 PC out of nothing… today, i’m gonna build a car out of nothing… i’m thinking a Jeep Liberty, and next week i’m moving into my new house… how long does it take to build a house out of nothing, and does it come painted?… how do I choose colors?

    and you think ID’ers are idiots?

  8. Christine Keeler says:

    and you think ID’ers are idiots?

    Well actually, murgatroid, yes. Tell us again about how dinosaurs and people co-existed.

  9. Nabakov says:

    “…and you think ID’ers are idiots?”

    Unless you can prove God created your computer, Jeep Liberty, house and Dulux Federation Green, well yes.

  10. Just the other day I made a brand new Pentium 4 PC out of nothing…

    As if! It’s tough enough carving a Pentium 4 PC out of ironbark, with only your trusty Aussie pioneer’s ax to work with. Them baling wire USB ports are a bugger of a finicky job. And don’t get me started on firewire…

  11. mick says:

    Well, Gummo, the problem is that you are using ironbark for a Pentium 4. Everyone knows that ironbark just isn’t stable when you move up to such a sophisticated achitecture. It works fine for a P3, but for a P4 you really need to go with a softwood for the core and then reinforce it with a hardwood.

  12. Nabakov says:

    If God had intended us to get digital, then you wouldn’t have an innie or an outie but instead a USB slot.

    I rest my case…like a stunned mullet is just really bagging some rays.

  13. Christine Keeler says:

    What do you recommend for the hard drive? I’ve been to Bunnings but honestly, the MDF is completely useless for that sort of job (although pretty handy for toasters and self-cleaning ovens)

  14. Well, if a hard drive’s going to take the revs it needs to be made of something really hard. You’d probably be better off picking up a couple of redgum sleepers.

  15. Nabakov says:

    What do you recommend for the hard drive?

    I’ve heard Jesus saves.

    But I’ve also heard Paul of Tarsus does really detailed backups although you experience some second generation data corruption.

  16. Nabakov says:

    Of course if you want some serious hard drive action, there’s always John The Relevator (” I’ve Gone Crazy!, Crazy! Crazy! Everything Must Go!”)

    Apparently though his aftersales warranties aren’t much chop.

  17. Nabakov says:

    And watch out for anything with a ‘Council of Nicaea V.1’ sticker. They really fucked up on the DRM (Divine Rights Management) protocols.

  18. mick says:

    In all seriousness folks I hope NASA gets their funky new telescopes up and running soon. I’d love to get a loot at this new planet. Imagine how cool it would be to witness evidence of life on another planet for the first time? Now that’s real science, beats the hell outta my building computer’s outta photons and the like any day of the week.

  19. Nabakov says:

    Caution Mick, caution, Reread Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle’s ‘Fifth Planet’ for what happens when a transnational space bureaucracy attempts engage in detail with a too good to be true C3-rated planet.

  20. Megan says:

    At last! After years of being an atheist, someone or something I can worship – Aliens!

  21. Mammon says:

    You can always give me a try Megan

  22. The Devil Drink says:

    Megan, beware of false idols and dodgy money-making schemes. I’m talking about this shady Mammon character–but if you’re after a sound afterlife investment strategy, you know I can deliver on promises.

  23. Murgatroid says:

    Nabakov on 26 April 2007 at 10:55 pm
    “…and you think ID’ers are idiots?â€?

    Unless you can prove God created your computer, Jeep Liberty, house and Dulux Federation Green, well yes.

    so let me get this straight… God couldn’t have done it because we don’t want to believe in God, so let’s say that everything happened all by itself… nothing made everything!… yeah, that’s better!

  24. Zarquon says:

    Nothing could have created everything, after all there’s nothing to stop it from happening.

  25. Murgatroid says:

    Zarquon on 27 April 2007 at 10:45 am
    “Nothing could have created everything, after all there’s nothing to stop it from happening.”

    i agree… just don’t call it science, and don’t tell me your faith is better than someone else’s.

  26. Christine Keeler says:

    just don’t call it science, and don’t tell me your faith is better than someone else’s.

    It is science and it is rather better than your ridiculous childlike belief that the earth is only 6,000 years or the literal truth of the scribblings of ancient middle eastern goat-herders.

  27. Christine Keeler says:

    Neat trick BTW, attempting to conflate settled science with your own blinkered faith.

  28. David Bath says:

    So, when will those climate change naysayers turn round and say “if we stuff up this planet, we can always move to Gliese”, which makes as much sense as their existing plans for investment in conventional nuclear plants (perhaps not the pebble beds), rather than renewables or hot rocks?

  29. j_p_z says:

    How do we know that the inhabitants of Gliese-c aren’t looking at us right now with their own telescopes and thinking, “Aha! Looks perfect! Honey, pack up the suitcases while I load up the star destroyer…”

  30. David bath: there is the little matter of 20 light-years distance. Unless you can crank your spaceship up fast enough to take advantage of time dilation, it’ll take several lifetimes to get there.

    j_p_z: We don’t. Hmm. That gives me an idea to pass on to our American space enthusiast friends. Forget about renaming the TPF the “Ronald Reagan Space Telescope” to get Republicans to fund it – just call it an interstellar surveillance satellite!

  31. FDB says:

    I for one welcome our new overlords.

  32. Peter Kemp says:

    Murgatroid re:

    so let’s say that everything happened all by itself… nothing made everything!… yeah, that’s better!

    It’s difficult for non-scientists like myself to understand, but it seems that quantum theory has been applied to cosmological models and found to have contributed significantly to our understanding.

    It’s hard, it’s difficult but simply repeating the mantra “Goddidit” is a cop out and a sign of intellectual weakness to anyone with a modicum of appreciation for science. Remember, the “Goddidit” folk once believed the sun rotated around the earth until science put them to rights (well except for some even today for whom science is an “enemy.”) The difference between science and theology is we re-write or update the science text books when a theory is proven deficient.

    Science is rapidly pushing back the frontiers of ignorance, what exactly is theology doing? (Hint: nothing except to reinforce the idea that ignorance and superstition is a virtue)

    http://www.lifesci.sussex.ac.uk/home/John_Gribbin/cosmo.htm#Inflation

    Quantum [theory–but predictions at the sub-atomic so accurate that it’s like calculating the accuracy of the distance between cities to a hair’s diameter) uncertainty allows the temporary creation of bubbles of energy, or pairs of particles (such as electron-positron pairs) out of nothing, provided that they disappear in a short time. The less energy is involved, the longer the bubble can exist. Curiously, the energy in a gravitational field is negative, while the energy locked up in matter is positive. If the Universe is exactly flat , then as Tryon pointed out the two numbers cancel out, and the overall energy of the Universe is precisely zero. In that case, the quantum rules allow it to last forever. If you find this mind-blowing, you are in good company. George Gamow told in his book My World Line (Viking, New York, reprinted 1970) how he was having a conversation with Albert Einstein while walking through Princeton in the 1940s. Gamow casually mentioned that one of his colleagues had pointed out to him that according to Einstein’s equations a star could be created out of nothing at all, because its negative gravitational energy precisely cancels out its positive mass energy. “Einstein stopped in his tracks,” says Gamow, “and, since we were crossing a street, several cars had to stop to avoid running us down”.

  33. j_p_z says:

    I’ve never understood this bizarre fake dichotomy of, “if science explains it, then God couldn’t have done it.” Most religious people have no trouble at all believing that God created the universe, and in whatever way he saw fit to do so; and if it involved cosmic eons and a whopping dose of quantum physics, but he couldn’t be bothered to spell it all out to Moses during their interview on a mountaintop, well, I guess he had his reasons. Religion, or at least revealed monotheistic religion, is not primarily concerned with physical cosmology in any case. The kingdom of Heaven is still like a mustard seed, even if you can show me that the mustard seed is made of subatomic particles.

    Besides, science is not an absolute knowledge system, it’s just an updating of what we think we might know at any given moment, until it is ‘proven’ otherwise. It’s always just our best guess until we get a better one. Remember how in the 18th century, folks thought that Newton had finally got it all figured out? Oh well…

    Here’s a thought experiment: what if, way down the road in scientific research, our best models of the universe started to indicate to us that post-quantum physics had engineered a vast epistemological illusion on us, and the mounting evidence showed that the universe really was created 6,000 years ago, and that its design was proving to be more and more ‘intelligent’ in its nature? Would all the religion-denying pro-science types embrace that research, or would they try to negate it, on any grounds they could find?

  34. Peter Kemp says:

    j_p_z re

    bizarre fake dichotomy

    Agreed, it’s fake. The real dichotomy is science explains, God exists (but doesn’t explain)

    but he couldn’t be bothered to spell it all out to Moses during their interview on a mountaintop, well, I guess he had his reasons.

    Like who was there to record the interview or was it the biblical case that when Moses opens his mouth the “BullRushes”?

    Religion, or at least revealed monotheistic religion, is not primarily concerned with physical cosmology in any case.

    So a supernatural being didn’t create the universe?

    science is not an absolute knowledge system, it’s just an updating of what we think we might know at any given moment, It’s always just our best guess until it is ‘proven’ otherwise.

    Best guess indeed. Like the theory of gravity? The apples drop off and fly upwards tomorrow? E=MC2 will be E=MC tomorrow?

    the mounting evidence showed that the universe really was created 6,000 years ago,

    So the methods, validity, and scope of multiple verifiable independent methods of carbon dating that show fossils to be tens/hundreds of millions of years old will all be proven wrong? Our Milky way Galaxy is only 6,000 light years or less in diameter instead of 100,000 light years (let alone the universe FFS)?

    Would all the religion-bothering anti-science types embrace that cosmological research, or would they try to negate it, on any grounds they could find?

    You betcha–right now as we speak.

    Shorter j_p_z: I’m hoping all the major immutable scientifically discovered constants of this universe will be proven wrong.

  35. Grindaxe says:

    Thank you Peter Kemp. Spot on but wasted, as most people prefer their own cosy home-grown prejudices to the windy spaces of true soaring open-mindedness.

    Don’t believe me? Go to a meeting of notable scientists discussing a controversial idea.

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