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Welcome to Gliese 581

October 6, 2010

Brit Trogen

Science in Seconds Brit Trogen

 

Pack your bags! We've finally found a planetary Plan B: a potentially habitable exoplanet orbiting a distant star. Twenty light-years away, to be exact.

 

Although, truth be told, we can't abandon ship quite yet. This exoplanet is Earth-sized, and is one of six planets orbiting the red dwarf star Gliese 581 in the middle of the star's "habitable zone." But we don't yet know if it has liquid water and an atmosphere, without which life just wouldn't be the same. Meaning, of course, it would just be death.

 

But this planet, called Gliese 581g, has a mass that indicates a rocky surface, which means it could have enough gravity to hold an atmosphere. It also has a gravity about the same or a bit higher than Earth's, meaning it wouldn't be hard to walk on the planet. But it's not a perfect replica. Unlike Earth, which rotates around its axis, Planet G is tidally locked to its star, meaning the same side is facing the sun at all times. This means half of the planet is in constant darkness, half in light, and anyone living on it would probably have to stay in the line between the shadow and light, called the "terminator."

 

But in the opinion of Stephen Vogt, one of the researchers who discovered it, the chances of life already existing on the planet are 100 percent. And despite its shortcomings, Gliese 581g is the closest thing we've ever found to a habitable planet outside our own solar system. Which means all we have to do is travel 20 light-years, and we'll have a clean slate!  

 

So if we ever do colonize this "Earth 2.0", let's make sure we do it right. A bit of artificial selection perhaps? I think three questions could thin the population sufficiently: Is global warming a myth? Is recycling for bums? Did you vote Palin/O'Donnell 2012? Welcome to Gliese!

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