Planet Declared As 100% Likely To Have Life... Now Can't Even Be Found

from the oops dept

You may recall a few weeks ago, we wrote about the discovery of the first "potentially life-sustaining planet" outside of our solar system, which got some astronomers so excited that one declared the chance of life on the planet to be 100%. Of course, he may want to adjust his optimism a bit downwards as Slashdot points us to the news that another group of astronomers are saying they can't find any trace of the planet:
But at this week's Astrophysics of Planetary Systems meeting, astronomer Francesco Pepe of the Geneva Observatory and the Swiss group reported that he and his colleagues could find no reliable sign of a fifth planet in Gliese 581's habitable zone. They used only their own observations, but they expanded their published data set from what the U.S. group included in its analysis to a length of 6.5 years and 180 measurements. "We do not see any evidence for a fifth planet ... as announced by Vogt et al.," Pepe wrote Science in an e-mail from the meeting. On the other hand, "we can't prove there is no fifth planet." No one yet has the required precision in their observations to prove the absence of such a small exoplanet, he notes.

Astronomer Paul Butler, a member of the U.S. team who is at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., says he can't comment on the Swiss work because he wasn't at the meeting and the data are unpublished. He notes, however, that more observations will likely be needed to solidify the existence of Gliese 581g. "I would expect that on the time scale of a year or two this should be settled."
So, perhaps before we declare it 100% likely to have life, we should make sure it actually exists.

Filed Under: astronomy, habitable, planets


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  1. icon
    Ben (profile), 13 Oct 2010 @ 11:48am

    From the same article (comments)

    The American team used a combined set of observations: One 11-year-long set consisted of 122 measurements made by the team, while the other set was 4.3 years long and consisted of 119 measurements published by the consortium.

    [The Swiss group] used only their own observations, but they expanded their published data set from what the U.S. group included in its analysis to a length of 6.5 years and 180 measurements.

    So, the American study had 241 observations over at least 11 years and the data is peer reviewed and published. The Swiss apparently are refuting that by ignoring half the data and adding 61 data points from 2.2 years that haven't been peer reviewed. Obviously they're a reputable group, but I'll wait for them to look at *all* of the data available to them, preferably published data, before just taking them at their word. Doubly so for a negative finding since alpha (chance of a false positive) tends to be a lot smaller than beta (chance of a false negative).

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