September 30th, 2010
01:12 PM ET

'100 percent' chance for life on newly found planet?

An artist rendering shows the four inner planets of the Gliese 581 system and their host star.

Gliese 581g may be the new Earth.

A team of astronomers from the University of California and the Carnegie Institute of Washington say they've found a planet like ours, 20 light years (120 trillion miles) from Earth, where the basic conditions for life are good.

"The chances for life on this planet are 100 percent," Steven Vogt, a UC professor of astronomy and astrophysics says. "I have almost no doubt about it."

The planet is three times the size of Earth, but the gravity is similar.

Dr. Elizabeth Cunningham, planetarium astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, says the discovery is a huge deal.

"It could have liquid water on the surface," she said. "That's the first step to find life."

The Gliese 581 system's orbit compared to our own solar system. The planet labeled G is the one scientists believe could very likely support life.

There are hundreds of known extrasolar planets that have been discovered in the Milky Way, but this is the first that could support life.

Earthlings won't be traveling to Gliese 581g any time soon unfortunately. Scientists say a spaceship traveling close to the speed of light would take 20 years to make this journey.

But if we did - we'd find some other things familiar. The atmosphere and gravity are similar to Earth, and if you're from the polar regions, you'd definitely feel right at home. Scientists say the highest average temperature is about -12 degrees Celcius (10 Fahrenheit), but they point out that the planet doesn't have a night and day - one side continually faces the star and the other side faces the darkness of space. This means one side is blazing hot and the other freezing cold.

Gliese orbits a red dwarf star called Gliese 581. Cunningham says "it's a Goldilocks planet."

"It's not too hot, it's not too cold, it's just right" for water to form, Cunningham said.

The area is called the "Goldilocks zone."

Other planets near Gliese 581g have been discovered, but they are not habitable and are mainly comprised of gas. Gliese 581g, however, is a rocky planet.

It was discovered using the Keck telescope in Hawaii which has been observing the star Gliese 581 for 11 years.

"Keck's long-term observations of the wobble of nearby stars enabled the detection of this multi-planetary system," said Mario R. Perez, Keck program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington.

Astronomers are excited this new planet was discovered so fast and relatively close by.

"I'm surprised we found one so fast," Cunningham said. "The implication is either we were very lucky or these planets could be relatively common."

Gliese 581g is in the constellation of Libra. While Earth takes 365 days to orbit our star, the sun, Gliese 581g orbits its star in 37 days.

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Filed under: Science • Space
soundoff (1,327 Responses)
  1. SFC Mike

    @arthurr – the gravity of the other planet is a matter of basic physics – the article states the same gravity as earth, but 3 times the size. Gravity is a function of mass and distance. The size of the planet can be deduced from gravitational lensing or other means. Orbital distances and mass can be determined from analysis of orbital perturbation or gravitational lensing.

    Orbital period (i.e. the planet's "year") is a function of distance from the star. Distance from the star gives you speed, which allows you to confirm mass – if the mass is too high or low for the speed, there is no stable orbit and the planet wouldn't be there. Each of the variables can be derived from observation of the values of other variables, so a lot of information can be derived.

    The same side of the planet facing the star (as is the care with the moon and earth, or the sun and the planet Mercury) is a result of an effect known as "tidal locking" or "tidal gravitational locking" and this is also something that can be derived from observable data, even though we don't see it directly in this specific case – we know the laws of physics apply in the same way there as here, so it's all a matter of observation and applying known physical laws.

    September 30, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • oda155

      ...damnnnn! And you're just an SFC! I think Major Mike wouold sound a whole lot cooler...

      September 30, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  2. tehheh

    If we manage to get there, we'll just screw that place up like we did this one. I hope the natives there eat the earthlings right away. Pulling out the big stewpot and the sharp eating utensils will be the only way for them to save themselves from our destructiveness. Ask the Native Americans and other First Nationers on the earth because they know.

    September 30, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott B

      Last I checked, the Earth is still perfectly habitable. Not everything man does is a screwup. Unless we're going to an alien planet for resources or land (like was the case with the Americas), I doubt we'll be the ones to fire the first shot. And who's to say our aggressiveness isn't right? The animals are pretty violent too. It's a natural part of evolution.

      September 30, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  3. GAPeach

    If there is life on this planet, let's hope they don't get here first as illegal aliens asking fo a handout!

    September 30, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  4. jimmy

    I can just see Sarah Palin right now saying Drill Baby Drill.

    September 30, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  5. dddddddddddddd

    i'm all for science but really who cares? the human race will be long extinct by war and disease before we could even dream of a spaceship that could take us to explore one of these far off planets.

    September 30, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • blue

      Some people aren't as pessimistic...but it will certainly not happen in our lifetime.

      September 30, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Aditya Adhikari

    A. One Side is always Day and one side always Night, Freez to death or burn to death.
    B. 37 Days in a year.
    C. 20 Light Years away

    And how is this planet like Earth?

    September 30, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • laptopmobsta

      Wait... distance is a reason for it not to be like earth??

      September 30, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeff P

      The planet's Twilight band would have Earth-like conditions.

      September 30, 2010 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
  7. blue

    Google "Project Orion" if you're wondering how we would most likely try to attempt to reach such a planet. It basically involves setting off nuclear weapons behind a large spacecraft for propulsion.

    September 30, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Thomas

    A civilization killing asteriod WILL impact the earth long before mankind is able to achieve deep space travel

    September 30, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott B

      Can you give me the lotto numbers while your at it?

      Fact is, we're getting very good at detecting asteroids. The chances of a civilization destroying impact occurring without much lead time are pretty small. Humans are pretty good at engineering, especially when it's necessary for our survival.

      September 30, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • cavemanstyle

      Boy that's real hopeful of you Tom.. I hope you're wrong.

      September 30, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Stoprunning

    Let's leave all the inbred religious nazi people here so they can kill each other.

    September 30, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Robert

    In response to arthurr:

    You don't need to install a scale on a planet to see how much things weigh there, you perform calculations based on gravity pull between orbiting bodies. You know that the Sun pulls the Earth, but believe or not, the Earth does pull the Sun, although to an almost undetectable factor. You need years of astrophysics to fully understand it.

    September 30, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  11. T

    "All the females look like Crystal Bernard" ??
    No.
    Amanda Tapping and/or Lucy Lawless

    September 30, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Eddie D.

    Am i the only one who thinks the "100% chance" is such a play on words? I have a 100% chance of a hippo beating me at Halo. hahahaha

    September 30, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Bill Bigsby

    Lets hope that religion is not relavent on gLIEse. It has caused this planet enough desrtuction.

    September 30, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
  14. laptopmobsta

    I think people are misreading what the scientist is saying. I don't think he is saying at life is for certainty going to be on this planet.. I think he meant, there is a 100% probability that there is a chance of life.

    September 30, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • MrsFizzy

      It's like when our weatherman said there could be "potential for the possibility" of a tornado forming – just that the conditions could be right.. didn't happen.

      September 30, 2010 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Thorrsman

    If one side always faces the sun and the other is always in darkness, how can this be considered a "just right" planet? Seems like an awful lot of wishful thinking involved in declaring that there is a "100% chance of life" on this distant planet.

    September 30, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
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