Orange Alert: Potentially Habitable Planet Found

from the M-class dept

Just as the rumors of a UN-appointed alien ambassador are settling down, astrophysicists have reported the discovery of the first potentially life-sustaining planet outside of our solar system. This conclusion is based on 11 years of observations and some estimates that place this newly-found exoplanet in a region that would allow for the existence of liquid water and an atmosphere on Gliese 581g. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean water or an atmosphere actually exist there.

The more important news here is that this type of planet can be found in a relatively straightforward manner — which will likely lead to many, many more discoveries of similar planets in the universe. However, instead of focusing on that, reporters and one of the scientists involved are hyping up the possibility of life. Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at University of California Santa Cruz, optimistically states:

“Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say that the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent. I have almost no doubt about it”

It seems a bit unscientific to project a 100% chance, especially given that our own solar system has more than one planet that could be classified as potentially habitable — and we’ve yet to confirm that life exists (or existed) on any other planet (or moon) that orbits our sun. And before we start charting a course towards Gliese 581 to meet up with new life forms, perhaps we should wait until a few more exoplanets are detected with similar characteristics.

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Comments on “Orange Alert: Potentially Habitable Planet Found”

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Big_Mike (profile) says:

Let them Hype it up. There is more then just planets that sustain life out there to explore and this is just one more reason for us to explore space. We send people into space now by strapping them to a controlled explosion. The more reasons we need to be in space, the more ways we find to make it safer.

Traveling in space has brought us a lot of advancements in science. Hype it up, get people interested again and not just because another ship explodes.

Doug B (profile) says:

Re: Re: I thought the same thing

So is that why we have a bunch of scientists trying to prove god doesn’t exist?

Proving a theory wrong can kill the theory sure. But do we have a theory about life in the universe? We’ve got a single observable instance of life arising on a planet. Based on that there’s no way we can make a valid theory that says any temperate earth-like planet has life on it. There’s not enough observable evidence to warrant the theory!

Stating that another planet is sure to have life on it is an extraordinary claim that requires like evidence. If you’re going to claim that there’s a 100% chance for life on Gliese 561g, you’ve most certainly got to defend that with more than “where there’s water on earth, there’s life”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: I thought the same thing

Actually, during the very early days of space exploration, many Christians believed that the universe is full of life as a sign of God’s benevolence. Unfortunately, that never seemed to pan out as far as we know. I think it would be very cool if we do find life on other planets though. Or at least other planets that we can inhabit. As a Christian I see nothing wrong with finding life on other planets at all.

Yeebok (profile) says:

Re: Re: I thought the same thing

Not quite – the way science works is someone goes “hey when I do X, Y happens” and that becomes a theory. Quite soon after lots of other scientists try to do X and have Y happen also. If a few of them have Z happen instead the theory is re-done to include why Y or Z may happen, it is retested, and so on. Once all the results everyone gets are included in the theory then they’re accepted as a rule or fact.

CommonSense (profile) says:

Re: Re: I thought the same thing

The difference, subtle though it may be, is that Scientists call it a THEORY, until it is proven wrong. It does not become fact, ever really, but is only upgraded to a ‘law’ or generally accepted as a rule after many scientists have run their own tests on it.

Science WELCOMES and ENCOURAGES criticism and questioning.

Religion shuns it, and will try to make you look like the devil if you if you don’t believe it.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: I thought the same thing

I hate to remind you that while the notion of free and critical discussion among scientists about well established theories is either welcomed or encouraged is a bit of a pipe dream.

If you consider that until well into the 1970s it was widely accepted in scientific circles that dinosaurs were all cold blooded, stupid, bad parents by mammalian standards and all died out.

Those who observed the subtle and not so subtle similarities between birds and dinosaurs were, to put it kindly, considered quacks.

The “quacks” held their ground and through such things as the discoveries that dinosaurs actually did develop feathers, weren’t at all similar to reptiles as parents, were considerably brighter than we thought, were warm blooded and a few other details that were considered laughable not so long ago.

And now we know that birds really are dinosaurs that survived the extinction by the simple fact that they could get up and move the distances required to find food and suitable nesting places during the extinction period.

In that sense scientists are remarkably like those you criticize in religion who hold onto simplistic notions about their faith and reject any and all interpretations that are at odds with their notions.

If the Judeo-Christian tradition rejected criticism and questioning then where,pray tell, did such honoured practices such as midrash and exegesis come from?

In short, we’re all human, we all have our blind spots and ideas we’re joined at the hip to and take something on the order of an earthquake to shake.

Science is no different than any other human endeavor in that respect.

RD says:

Re: Re: Re: I thought the same thing

“Science WELCOMES and ENCOURAGES criticism and questioning.”

Ha! I call bullshit on this. There are PLENTY of critics and questions about evolution sufficient to dispute its absolute validity, and yet if you so much as SNIFF at the theory wrong, everyone jumps on you for being a “closed minded Religious nutbag.” Period. It is so widely touted as FACT (and yes, its touted AS FACT by scientists and educators, and the poster boy for evolution, Richard Dawkins) that to question it in even the smallest way is tantamount to scientific heresy. It is so sacrosanct as a model, that its virtually impossible to debate the merits against it without being immediately shut down and dismissed as a wacko for even suggesting that evolution might, in fact, not be right. I have many problems with evolution as an explanation for how life exists on this planet, but you cant raise any objections because science DOESNT WANT TO HEAR DISSENT ON THE TOPIC OF EVOLUTION. At all. Ever.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 I thought the same thing

I have many problems with evolution as an explanation for how life exists on this planet, but you cant raise any objections because science DOESNT WANT TO HEAR DISSENT ON THE TOPIC OF EVOLUTION. At all. Ever.

Probably because your “DISSENT” isn’t on a level that scientists would like to listen. Screaming something doesn’t make it so. Can you point to a sane, rational discussion where said dissent is brought up and scientists have ignored, (and hasn’t been refuted hundreds of times before?)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: I thought the same thing

Science WELCOMES and ENCOURAGES criticism and questioning.

Science is an inanimate process and can neither welcome nor encourage anything.

People may encourage honest inquiry, or they may not. The track record of scientists in this regard is quite mixed, which is to be expected since scientists are just people.

Michial Thompson (user link) says:

Re: I thought the same thing

Actually the quote makes perfect sense… If the real story is that the method they used to discover this planet may lead to many more discoveries of planets like that.

Then the need would be to disprove that life existed on that planet, and why it didn’t so that they could rule out the many other potential planets and not waste resources on trying to find life on those planets that have the same issues.

Either way they have to find some way to either rule in or out that planet.

Jay (profile) says:

Another problem.

Another issue that arises is the very fact that there’s no research being put into trying to colonize Mars at all.

Think about this, you can actually grow resources there and have a planet that’s ready to colonize quite quickly. The problem arises when budget is determined for so many pet projects. IIRC, there’s a league of engineers that say we can colonize Mars for ~$420 million. Please don’t quote me on that number for it’s a rough guesstimate from a lecture.

So my question is why are we trying to see planets so far out when we can work on the planets within our solar system first?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Another problem.

Huh? Distance is not irrelevant to interstellar travel! Neither is fuel efficiency. If you have solid rocket fuel, it’s too massive to take on enough to reach your destination in a reasonable amount of time, while also having enough to accelerate and brake all that mass. Humans have to be able to live long enough to reach their destination. Ships will decay and fall apart from interstellar dust if they begin to travel at a significant fraction of the speed of light. Micrometeorites will puncture hulls if a ship is left in space long enough. Cosmic rays and radiation will wreck computer systems when near stellar bodies.

There are a million problems that make interstellar travel unfathomably difficult. Reaching escape velocity is the easiest part.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:


“Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say that the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent. I have almost no doubt about it”

I happen to believe that life outside our solar system will eventually be found as well, but it’s like this guy has never even HEARD of the Drake Equation….

Jason says:

Re: Sigh...

No it’s more like YOU’VE heard of it but don’t know what it is.

The finding of this type of planet and subsequent speculation about life on said planet eliminate the first three factors. His limitation of asserting only that there be life, not intelligent, civilized life eliminate the last three factors, leaving only f(l).

On this point Vogt is simply excersizing his own religious faith in the Jurassic Park perversion of Chaos Theory and asserting that life MUST happen where it might.

Designerfx (profile) says:

uh, what?

“And we’ve yet to confirm that life exists (or existed) on any other planet (or moon) that orbits our sun”. huh? I know you’re a tech guy, but you might want to keep up on science too, Mike.

Life was essentially confirmed as “very likely to exist” on mars recently.

Ben (profile) says:

Re: Glad to see this stance on issues

The life the article refers to is any form of cellular organism. We’ve found life all over the earth, in many regions previously considered inhospitable to life. We know (believe strongly) that life can arise from liquid water, so if we find a planet whose orbit places it in the collection of orbits that allow for liquid water to exist, it is no stretch to say that life is possible there. 581g certainly does not look like earth, but it doesn’t need to.

Killer_Tofu (profile) says:

Re: Re: Glad to see this stance on issues

I would almost bet they have already found a planet with life and overlooked it just because they are stuck on the idea that it has to be carbon based. Why couldn’t it be possible for life to exist when its not carbon based? (maybe I didn’t read something I should have somewhere that explains why its not possible, but it seems like we are pigeon-holing ourselves here)

Freak says:

Re: Re: Re: Glad to see this stance on issues

I agree. However, there is this question:

If it isn’t carbon-based, how would we recognize it?

We do actually try a variety of methods to detect life that doesn’t have anything to do with it being carbon based, but we really only know how to detect carbon lifeforms.

So, we work on finding carbon lifeforms because those are what we know how to detect.

(Similarly, we only think about thoughts we can think because we can ONLY think about thoughts we can think. Our lack of experience with other examples leave us unable to expand our horizons)

Freak says:

Re: Re: Glad to see this stance on issues

Consider the complexity of the environment.

There is nowhere on earth today that is anywhere near complex enough for abiogenesis. Outside of a laboratory. That we know of.

This planet, being in tidal lock, will probably have a very stable and comparatively simple environment.

You have further restrictions that there is only a very, very small ring around the planet, (Near the border between dark and light sides), where any life that requires water or a water-like substance might possibly have arisen from, IF it has a sufficient atmosphere such that the water doesn’t all freeze on the dark side.

And then, well, you’re still dealing with some heavy apocalypse winds, especially in that particular potentially habitable ring.

And there are tons of other restrictions that Vogt and the reporters fail to mention.

And even then, you’re confusing a couple of issues.
Abiogenesis is completely different from underestimating life’s ability to adapt to strange environments. If life doesn’t start there in the first place, you won’t find life there. If life has already started there, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if we find it everywhere on the planet.

(Note: To be fair, it’s only predicted to be in tidal lock)

The REALLY big news is that we now have a quick, efficient method to find a LOT of planets like these, among which we might find much better planets to call ‘habitable’ and ‘100% chance of life’.

mac84 says:

Who cares?

how many light years away is Glise 581? So what we see now is a snapshot back in time. And to get there will take how many years? and to get any information back from any expedition? Better to spend the money on alternative energy research, or free bicycle helmets for children or to reduce poverty or world famine, or…

Ben (profile) says:

Re: Who cares?

The largest benefit of this research is in refining our understanding of how solar systems form. This has very real applications in helping us to understand our solar system and extends to topics like the distribution of resources throughout the inner planets and asteroids. You’re right that earth has problems, but if any of us want to continue to enjoy our standard of living (or anything enjoyed after ~1900s), we cannot restrict ourselves to the earthen resources.
No one (of repute) is talking about traveling to 581g to meet our fellow life forms. Space travel beyond our solar system is infeasible according to current physics, it’s out of the question. Looking at other planets may allow us to answer some of the most fundamental questions on our existence; in this case how did life arise and how common is it.

Anonymous Coward says:


REAL science will tell you that they dont really have 100% proof it can be habitable, however it dont look great due to tidal lock

the planet over time due to how close it is will slow rotation if it ever did…..
and because of the measurements they took they determined its long since been tidally locked

that means venus like conditions potentially ( god i hate this keyboard)

at best in the region where the two night /days meet is slim chance of water existing but if you think of the fact tidal lock means no CO2 recycling as well….

ahuman says:

Before you Comment on Science learn some

There is only one planet in our solar system right in the middle of the habitable zone and it has life. There are other planets like Europa are possibly inhabited but they are not in the habitable zone of our star. So this means that life may even exist outside the habitable zones of stars thus increasing the odds even higher of life around other stars. I would have been more bold and said that the percent was 200%.

I can tell the author is not versed in astrophysics….

Freak says:

Re: Before you Comment on Science learn some

Well, being in the habitable zone doesn’t mean that much. It means the temperature is about right without allowing for anything but the light from the star. 581 c and 581 d are right on the edges of the same habitability zone, but we can say right now that they are hopeless for life or habitability with our limited data.

Meanwhile, we have some really promising looking worlds here, which so far have shown no sign of life. And we have a lot more data filled in about them; we don’t even know if 581 g has an atmosphere, for example, while we have a pretty good idea about the atmospheres of the planets and moons in our solar system.

BTW, Europa is a moon. Moon =/= planet. Habitable zone is a term intended for planets.
In particular, the habitable zone is the area at which, IF all other conditions are right, a planet MIGHT retain liquid water on the surface.

So, outside of the HZ, a habitable earthlike PLANET does not exist, (though a moon might), but that’s only one of a heckuvalot of hurdles.
There are still may cases, by far the majority of them, by enumeration or by statistical weight, whereas a planet in the HZ does not retain water. It might not even have water, it might not even have an atmosphere if conditions are wrong.

And then the existence of water doesn’t guarantee life. It’s just one in a long list of hurdles . . .

You’re taking some major anthropic bias when you declare that the one planet we know in the middle of the HZ has life, btw.

Ryan Diederich says:


I agree with above, the red giant phase of the sun will engulf up to mars.

Then again, it would take us hundreds if not thousands of years to get to this other one.

No scientist should be claiming 100%, he is a fool… Or is he? The hype might actually build more funing, research is good, no matter what its on.

The fact is, from way back here on Earth, no one will ever be able to disprove that there is life there.

But, we should be proving, not disproving, since anyone whos ever heard of SETI and the Drake equation knows that the odds of life existing are what they are because there are a hundred bazillion planets out there.

Anonymous Coward says:

Virtually every scientific finding in astronomy has to have this spin whenever reported by the media. Even if it’s marvelous and fascinating on its own, reporters seem to feel that the general public won’t be able to relate to anything without exhaustive hyperbole about the implications of life of whatever thing they’re talking about.

It can be incredibly annoying when articles are talking about some minor observation and then veer wildly into grandiose claims about how it proves this or that about extraterrestrial life or evolution or whatever, and the finding just has nothing to do with that.

SLK8ne says:

This is all well and good, but......

This is interesting news to be sure, but, my response is, so, what? There may be a high probability (or not) that this planet is habitable. Lets even say there’s life on it. OK, that’s nice.

And your point is???

Folks, we have trouble sending drones to Mars! I forget the exact failure rate, but, most of what we send to Mars catos when it gets there. Maybe there’s life there is life on this distant planet and maybe there isn’t. One thing is for sure. None of us are going there. With current technology a manned mission to, say, Jupiter, is wildly unlikely to have any survivors. The idea of going to another SOLAR SYSTEM (caps for emphasis) is absolutely preposterous.

And as much as I find the idea of having a colony on Mars to be intriguing…has anyone noticed the economy lately? Has anyone looked at the US budget deficit? The US national debt?

It is amazing to me that the country is up to it’s eyeballs in debt, and that your children and grandchildren are going to be taxed into poverty to keep the INTEREST on the debt paid, and people here are talking about increasing NASA’s budget?

Maybe, just maybe, we should think about reigning in our budget excesses and getting the country solvent again before we go traipsing off to other planets, hm?

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