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. Giggly

    I like to eat da poo poo

    September 30, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Paul

    OK, so they have the mass and the likely orbital distance. However, nowhere in any of these press releases do they discuss whether they know it has an atmosphere... Have any biotracers been found in spectral data of the planet? How do we know it's not just a rocky planet with no atmosphere like Mercury? It's in the habitable zone, but is there anything to keep liquid?

    September 30, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Mad Russian

    Arthurr, it's called math and science. That's how they get these observations. You look at changes in the electromagnetic and infrared spectrum. You can actually see the wobble of the planets in relation to the position of their closest stars. Remember, if you're not part of the solution you're part of the precipitate.

    September 30, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Yikes

      Funniest reply so far.

      September 30, 2010 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
  4. james darnley

    can we please stop wasting billions of dollars on something that can never happen and start spending that money here on earth doing some real good.every country should get together and make an agreement to stop wasting all this money on nothing and start spending it on thier own people.we already killed almost all the indians and stole thier land isn;t that enough.we don;t have the right to go disturbing another civilazation even if one really does exist.which it proberbly does not.

    September 30, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      You're an idiot.

      September 30, 2010 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • freeman

      Yet again, you people obviously can't read. Life does NOT equal INTELLIGENT life. And in your reply, you are not only assuming that, but you've daydreamed up a CIVILIZATION for us to destroy...

      Furthermore, if we take your advice and spend our money on staying on Earth, and never leave orbit... eventually, we will use ALL of earths resources. What then? The end of civilization, and possibly Humanity itself.

      So you're right, the work these scientists are doing is not really necessary ... Unless you want Humanity to continue to survive!

      September 30, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Yikes

      "The Earth is the cradle of the mind - but one cannot eternally live in a cradle" - Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

      September 30, 2010 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • TA

      Agreed. we know that its possible to have life on other planets. but we also know how much better our OWN world would be if we could use that money to help others. We shoot signals into space hoping other life finds it and sends it back. Waste money.

      September 30, 2010 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  5. cavemanstyle

    Guys, guys... and gals, you're missing the most obvious point of all. The fact that a star itself is millions and millions of light years away, and still spectrographically has the same chemical make-up of the rest of the closer proximity starts, proves that the periodic table of elements is consistant throughout the known visible universe. A red dwarf on one side of the universe, is primarily the same composition and functions the same as another one on the other side of the visible universe. So you see, the proof is in the pudding.. Life, in my brilliant philisophical mind, can be created the same way everywhere else in the universe, at least in the observable one anyways. Don't let your mind deceive your eyes, and what you can observe with your own intuition. That planet, probably has some type of life on it. Also, it's safe to say that a planet with mammals on it, MUST have a food chain. Plants, or other small animals, insects, or other unknown food source for them to survive. My theory is, if one form of life is proven to exists, you can be sure there are more living with it.

    September 30, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Chris

    Are people so used to science fiction that they think we could some day go there? Maybe in 100 years we might know how to build a spacecraft that could make the one way trip in as few as 200 years. Then when it got there it would send a message back and a reply via radio would take 40 years. No if we want to learn about this planet we build a really, really big telescope and put it in space. Maybe within 100 years we will have our answer, must faster then going there to look

    As for life. It could be that if conditions are right life will always ariase but we don't know this and will not know it until we look (using those really big telescopes) at a statistically large sample of earth-like planets.

    September 30, 2010 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • EarthBrother

      Can you have gravity without rotation?

      September 30, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wha

      Gravity is associated with mass, not rotation. Please go buy a physics book for dummies. Will give you some basic concepts.

      September 30, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      > Can you have gravity without rotation?

      Science education in the US is really terrible.

      Yes, gravity is a function of mass. Everything with mass affects everything else with mass.

      > Are people so used to science fiction that they think we could some day go there? Maybe in 100 years we might
      > know how to build a spacecraft that could make the one way trip in as few as 200 years.

      I'm sure in 1910 the thought that man could be walking on the moon inside of 60 years would have been unthinkable. Heck, the jet engine was probably unthinkable in 1910.

      > Then when it got there it would send a message back and a reply via radio would take 40 years.

      A radio reply would take 20 years, not 40, because the star is 20 light years away.

      > No if we want to learn about this planet we build a really, really big telescope and put it in space.

      We should do both.

      September 30, 2010 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Not necessarily. Near light speed would be sufficient for a one way trip. There is a time dilation effect that takes place as you approach light speed. So 20 years would still pass on earth of course, but the travelers would actually get there much much sooner. I imagine the same would apply if a probe was sent, and though matter cannot exceed light speed in any way that we know of yet, it has been demonstrated that energy can. This opens the doorway for communication with the probe that was sent. So if the probe arrives much sooner than 20 years, and can communicate at FTL speeds, would it be possible to actually learn more about this planet via physical contact far sooner? Just something to think about. Just the fact that it is there means a lot, it may drive further research into the means of reaching worlds like this now that we know they are out there.

      September 30, 2010 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Other John:
      > So 20 years would still pass on earth of course, but the travelers would actually get there much much sooner.

      Much sooner for them, but it would still be 20 years for us and a theoretical observer on Gliese 581g.

      > So if the probe arrives much sooner than 20 years

      To do this, the probe would have to physically travel faster then the speed of light (c), which we don't know how to do with matter. From the timepoint of a clock on the probe, it would be much sooner than 20 years, but not from the timepoint of an outside observer.

      > would it be possible to actually learn more about this planet via physical contact far sooner?

      Figure 40 years for a trip at .5 c, and 20 years for the radio signal to get back to us, if we launched a probe today capable of moving at an average speed of .5 c, it'd take 60 years to know. Which doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

      September 30, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • justmeanddog

      Doesn't one of the theories of relativity hold that it is impossible for an observer inside an accelerating box to independently determine if they are being influenced by Gravity as opposed to acceleration?

      September 30, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  7. dibna

    "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."

    Such an ignorant statement, reflecting poorly on this campus. The University PR people need to talk to this guy about controlling scientific opinion verses personal wishes. He'll need to consider resigning the ability to speak to the press after this.

    September 30, 2010 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      There is a 100% chance that there is a "chance" of life, not that there is life. I'm more fascinated by the discovery and not little things such as how he decided to word it. Besides, the headline is what blew that phrase up.

      September 30, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • dibna

      Emphasis or not, they have utterly destroyed Steven Vogt's career path. He'll be better off to find an observatory in need of a technician now.

      September 30, 2010 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
  8. mat031

    Saying there is 100% chance is not really honest. it exist in a zone where it is believe liquid water could exist. Venus is also in such a zone, no water found there.

    September 30, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      As the mass of the star increases, the habitable zone moves further and further away from the star. With our Sun, the habitable zone covers Earth and nearly reaches to Mars and Venus. If our Sun was smaller, Venus would have been habitable, and if the Sun was larger, then Mars would have been habitable. In either case, Venus is not in this zone.

      September 30, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Timothy Williamson

    Good stuff!

    September 30, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  10. A Gliesen News Source

    LIFE ON Gliese 581g

    The dominant race is the "Edgers" A powerful and advanced people that inhabit the thin line of moderate temperature between the dark side and the light side.

    Those living on the dark side, the "Icies" they have have managed to erect super tall structures near the "Edge" with large parabolic mirrors that direct sunlight and heat into their villages.

    The "Crispers" who live on the hot side, spend nearly all their lives under ground, except for some costly and dangerous expeditions, and of course the bi-annual "eclipse celebration," where in the shadow of a nearby moon, they can enjoy the great out doors, for at least a few hours.....

    September 30, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
  11. justmeanddog

    If I remember correctly there is a difference between Velocity and Speed. I think the maximum Velocity of Light in a perfect Vacuum is 300,000 km per second. This seems to be the current standard set for the upper limit of movement in this Universe. Of course this is all based on the current state of our knowledge. It fits nicely with the "current" state of our knowledge of Mathematics and Physics and Cosmology. Our "future" state of knowledge with respect to Mathematics, Physics and in particular Cosmology will undoubtedly revise this assumption.

    September 30, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • kg311

      What I recall from physics class is that velocity is a measurement of speed and direction so while a constant speed is maintained velocity can change just by a change in direction. While the speed of light is commonly thought to be the upper limit of movement, that is just a measure of the difference between the speed at which two bodies are moving. So if you have two planets moving in opposite directions at the speed of light relative to each other, it would seem conceivable that a third planet moving in the same direction as one of the other two could be moving at the speed of light relative to the planet moving in the same direction. However, isn't it conceivable that, that planet is moving at twice the speed of light relative to the planet which is moving in the opposite direction of the other two? It would seem then that there is really no limit on the speed at which objects can move.

      September 30, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • donna

      kg311- Planets don't move at the speed of light because of inertia. If an object could accelerate to the speed of light, it would become light. Also, measures of lambda are not additive.

      September 30, 2010 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  12. River Steuter

    Anyone who uses "Almost" and "100%" in the same breath to describe the same thing doesn't deserve to be called a scientist.

    September 30, 2010 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Harry

      I was thinking the same thing. Ugh, very frustrating.

      September 30, 2010 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
  13. kg311

    Impressive, astronomers can accurately measure a planet's temperature to within a range of 180 degrees F from 120 trillion miles away. I also like how there can be a 100% chance of something. Is that the same as 1 in 1 odds of winning? Finally, the comments about the prediction of water on the planet miss the point. Water occuring in liquid form on planets is the issue.

    I also want to congratulate all of the posters here for not somehow digressing into a political "debate" of who the worst president since the beginning of time is followed by baseless comments on which political figurehead is a dummy and how the only stuff that comes out of their mouths is stupid. While those comments are important and no doubt will solve most of the pressing issues facing America today, this is a much needed respite.

    September 30, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • amphiox

      It's not actually a "measurement" of temperature. It's more like an estimate based on the known brightness of the star and the distance of the planet from the star. It doesn't take into account the effects of any planetary atmosphere, which at present we know nothing about and cannot yet observe. For comparison, using the same equations for earth we'd get an average temp of -25C or so. Earth's atmosphere bumps that actual average surface temperature up several degrees from that.

      September 30, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Carl

    I didn't see anyone mention the giant kitty cat race of Kilrah... so I figured I'd chime in with old alien races we've seen in movies or video games....

    What about the xemorph (sp) from the "Alien" franchise?

    September 30, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  15. STPF(savetheplanetfoundation.net

    we need to clean up this planet, and our junk in space if? we were capable to understant the universe and evolution,

    as unfold itself.

    September 30, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
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