Apr 25, 2007
No, before you switch off, this is not a Second Life clone, or anything to do with global wikis and blogs. This is the first astronomical post on Sciencebase for quite some time, but because it is not your usual run of the mill supernova announcement, or dark energy revelations, we thought it worthy of a slot. Okay, so what’s all the fuss?
Well, astronomers have finally discovered an Earth-like planet beyond the Solar System and it is bigger by half than earth. Most importantly, the exoplanet, spotted with the ESO 3.6 m telescope, by a team of Swiss, French and Portuguese scientists is capable of having liquid water. Could this Earth 2.0 offer human kind a planetary upgrade?
Well, it might be inhabitable, but the beta version has a few technical problems that might be difficult to overcome. First, aside from being 50% bigger than earth and therefore offering a lot of storage space, it also has a mass about five times that of the Earth, which means even the leanest among us will tip the scales. But, perhaps more importantly it orbits a red dwarf rather than a nice life-supporting star like the Sun. Of interest, but not necessarily a problem this planet has a couple of near neighbours, a Neptune-mass planet, and at least one more planet of about eight times the mass of the Earth.
More worrying, though the planet’s clock speed, or “year” is just 13 days and it is 14 times closer to the red dwarf than Earth is to the Sun. But, the exoplanet lies, nevertheless, in the life support zone in which water could be liquid.
“We have estimated that the mean temperature of this super-Earth lies between 0 and 40 degrees Celsius, and water would thus be liquid,” explains Stéphane Udry, from the Geneva Observatory, “Moreover, its radius should be only 1.5 times the Earth’s radius, and models predict that the planet should be either rocky – like our Earth – or covered with oceans,” he says.
Team member Xavier Delfosse from Grenoble University, France, has already marked this planet on his treasure map of the Universe, with an X. Of course, any pioneers hoping to boot up a new human race on exoplanet X, will have rather a long upload time, the host red dwarf, Gliese 581, is close to the Earth, lying at 20.5 light years in the constellation Libra. So, it will be a very long time before we have even the vaguest opportunity to get a closer look at Earth 2.0.