A new planet is discovered: Gliese 581
Sunday, January 23, 2022

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gliese 581d


But Gliese 581 does have one distinction — and that's enough to make it the focus of intense scientific attention. At last count, astronomers had identified more than 400 planets orbiting stars beyond the sun. On Wednesday September 29, 2010, a team of astronomers announced that it had found two more planets circling the star, bringing the total to six. And one of them, assigned the name Gliese 581g, may be of truly historic significance.For one thing, the planet is only about three or four times as massive as our home world, meaning it probably has a solid surface just like Earth. Much more important, it sits smack in the middle of the so-called habitable zone, orbiting at just the right distance from the star to let water remain liquid rather than freezing solid or boiling away. As far as we know, that's a minimum requirement for the presence of life.


Gliese 581 System


For thousands of years, philosophers and scientists have wondered whether other Earths existed out in the cosmos. And since the first, very un-Earthlike extrasolar planet was discovered in 1995, astronomers have been inching closer to answering that question. Now they've evidently succeeded (although to be clear, there's no way at this point to determine whether there is life on the new planet).

"We're pretty excited about it," admits Steve Vogt of the University of California at Santa Cruz, a member of the team, in a masterpiece of understatement. "I think this is what everyone's been after for the past 15 years."Lost in the excitement over possible life on the new world is what a remarkable achievement its mere discovery was. Detecting a planet this small is monstrously hard — and would have been impossible when Vogt and co-discoverer Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington first got into the planet-hunting game in the early 1990s. The instruments you use to detect tiny back-and-forth motions in the star — motions caused by the orbiting planet's gravitational tugs, which are often the only way to infer that the worlds exist at all — simply weren't sensitive enough. Since then, says Vogt, "I've been busting my gut to improve the instruments, and Paul has been busting his gut to do the observations." In all, those observations span more than 200 nights on the giant Keck I telescope in Hawaii over 11 years, supplemented by observations from the Geneva group — and that painstaking work finally confirmed 581g's existence.


Exoplanet Comparison Gliese 581 g


None of this proves that there is water on Gliese 581g. "Those are things we just have to speculate about," says Vogt. But he goes on to point out that there's water pretty much everywhere else you look. "There's water on Earth," he says, "and on the moon, and Mars, and on Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus, and in interstellar space. There's enough water produced in the Orion Nebula every 24 seconds to fill the Earth's oceans."


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It's not hard to imagine, in other words, that Gliese 581g might have plenty of water as well. "It could have quite a good ocean," Vogt says. Certainly, it could be a sterile, nonbiological ocean. But unlike any planet found until now, there's nothing to rule out the idea that it could be teeming with life.