Could Gliese 581d be habitable for humans? If so, it will have a thick, murky atmosphere to trap energy from its dim red dwarf parent star and a surface gravity twice that of Earth.
Cowboys & Aliens are Coming!
July 29, 2011 --
If aliens are going out of their way to kick up dust in the Wild West, as they do in the upcoming movie "Cowboys & Aliens," they must be coming from somewhere. Life could take root on a moon or a meteorite. But to nurture the kind of life that could destroy our saloons and harass our livestock, a planet might be the most suitable. So far, Kepler, a NASA orbiting telescope that searches for planets beyond our solar system, has detected over 1,200 exoplanets. Surely there must be a few candidates among this group that could meet some of the most basic requirements to host life? Explore some far-out worlds that could support aliens, be they cattle-rustling characters or a more peaceful people.
First, let's lay out some basic criteria. Kepler hasn't identified many rocky worlds and a solid surface is essential for life to take root. Size matters: The mass of the planet helps astrophysicists infer what it's made of. Some planets are Earth-sized. Others are several times the size of our planet. And then there are gas giants, which can range from "Neptune sized" to "super-Jupiters." Orbit: To support life, a planet must be in a stable orbit around its star -- no planets with wonky orbits that will eventually dump them into their star for a fiery death. Goldilocks Zone: This is a region not too hot or too cold that gives the planet enough distance from its parent star to have liquid water, key for life. Loner Stars: Single stars make better parents. In 2010, a pair of closely orbiting binary stars was spotted surrounded by what could be the debris of former planets. Unknowns: Some factors for life can't be confirmed one way or the other from the data available about extrasolar planets. These include: water, chemical compounds such as ammonia; a nitrogen-rich atmosphere; a magnetic field to repel solar and cosmic radiation; and more. BUT, some planets do have a head-start, beginning with Gliese 581D.
Located a mere 20 light-years away, practically our backyard in cosmic terms, Gliese 581d is situated on the "outer fringes" of the Goldilocks zone, orbiting a red dwarf star. The planet may be warm enough and wet enough to support life in much the same manner as Earth. It might also contain a thick carbon atmosphere. If we ever need a new Earth and have the means to get there, Gliese 581d may be our best bet for now.
When it was first detected and reported last year in Astrophysical Journal, Gliese 581g appeared to be the perfect candidate for a true "Earth-like" planet. Located in the same star system as Gliese 581d (and detected earlier), Gliese 581g seemed to be the right size and located within a habitable zone away from its parent star. Gliese 581g was said to have three times the mass of Earth, making it possible for the planet to hold an atmosphere. However, since its discovery, follow-up studies have alleged that Gliese 581g might have been a false alarm. In other words, the planet might not exist at all.
Dubbed a "waterworld" and located a mere 42 light-years from Earth, GJ 1214b orbits near a red dwarf star about one-fifth the size of our sun. What makes this planet unique is that it appears to be primarily composed of water, although GJ 1214b is 6.5 times the mass of Earth and 2.7 times wider, which classifies it as a "super-Earth." This planet also has a steamy atmosphere composed of thick, dense clouds of hydrogen, which, although it might not the case with this planet, could incubate life.
Situated 150 light-years from Earth, HD 209458b is a planet that holds traces of water vapor in its atmosphere, and also contains basic organic compounds that, on Earth, foster the development of life. But there are two factors working against HD 209458b as a suitable habitat. The planet is very hot due to its close proximity to its parents star, and it's a gas giant, so no solid surfaces.
If Kepler-10b were located further from its parent star, it might have had a chance of hosting life. Kepler-10b was the first "iron-clad proof of a rocky planet beyond our solar system" back in 2001. It was even dubbed the "missing link" of extrasolar planetary research. When it comes to the search for life, though, Kepler 10-b is missing a lot of other ingredients -- just minor things like water or an atmosphere.
When venturing to a new star system to explore the possibility of extraterrestrial life, trying a star that has already shown itself to nurture planets -- even if they're not the kind you're looking for -- could be a promising strategy. Project Icarus, an ambitious five-year study into launching an unmanned spacecraft to an interstellar destination, has identified two stars located within 15 light-years that might fit the bill: "epsilon Eridani, a single K star 10.5 light-years away, and the red dwarf GJ 674, 14.8 light-years away." Indirect evidence has also shown that epsilon Eridani may already hold smaller worlds scientists simply haven't detected yet. Also, red dwarf star systems generally may be a safe haven for life.
Are We Alone?
Taking into account the number of exoplanets that have been detected, as well as the vastly greater number that are estimated to be out there, some astrophysicists are convinced that extraterrestrial life is inevitable. After all, the Milky Way may be loaded with as many as 50 billion alien worlds. Some even think we'll find alien life by 2020. Others, however, say it may not exist at all. Recently, astrophysicists David Spiegel of Princeton University and Edwin Turner from the University of Tokyo suggested we might be alone in the universe, based on their interpretation of the Drake equation, a formula meant to determine loosely the probability of the existence of life beyond Earth. According to their analysis, just because life on Earth took shape early, endured and prospered doesn't mean the same process would naturally and inevitably occur elsewhere in the universe. Discovering life elsewhere, however, would be the only means of settling this debate. Unless the aliens find us first, of course.
— Gliese 581d is the fourth exoplanet to be discovered orbiting a red dwarf star called Gliese 581.
— Astronomers have calculated the world orbits within the star's habitable zone.
— Although it might be suitable for human habitation in the future, we would need a breakthrough in propulsion technology to get there.
A rocky world orbiting a nearby star has been confirmed as the first planet outside our solar system to meet key requirements for sustaining life, scientists said on Monday.
Modeling of planet Gliese 581d shows it has the potential to be warm and wet enough to nurture Earth-like life, they said.
It orbits a red dwarf star called Gliese 581, located around 20 light years from Earth, which makes it one of our closest neighbors.
Gliese 581d orbits on the outer fringes of the star's "Goldilocks zone", where it is not so hot that water boils away, nor so cold that water is perpetually frozen. Instead, the temperature is just right for water to exist in liquid form.
"With a dense carbon dioxide atmosphere — a likely scenario on such a large planet — the climate of Gliese 581d is not only stable against collapse but warm enough to have oceans, clouds and rainfall," France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) said in a press release.
More than 500 planets orbiting other stars have been recorded since 1995, detected mostly by a tiny wobble in stellar light.
Exoplanets are named after their star and listed alphabetically, in order of discovery.
Until now, the big interest in Gliese 581's roster of planets focused on Gliese 581g.
It leapt into the headlines last year as "Zarmina's World," after its observers announced it had roughly the same mass as Earth's and was also close to the Goldilocks zone.
But that discovery has since been discounted by many. Indeed, some experts suspect that Gliese 581g may not even exist but was simply a hiccup in starlight.
Its big brother, Gliese 581d, has a mass at least seven times that of Earth and is about twice our planet's size, according to the new study, which appears in a British publication, The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The planet, spotted in 2007, had initially been dismissed as a candidate in the hunt for life.
It receives less than a third of the solar radiation Earth gets, and may be "tidally locked", meaning that one side of it always faces the sun, which would give it permanent dayside and nightside.
But the new model, devised by CNRS climate scientists Robin Wordsworth, Francois Forget and colleagues, showed surprising potential.
Its atmosphere would store heat well, thanks to its dense CO², a greenhouse gas. And the red light from the star would also penetrate the atmosphere and warm the surface.
"In all cases, the temperatures allow for the presence of liquid water on the surface," say the researchers.
For budding travelers, though, Gliese 581d would "still be a pretty strange place to visit," the CNRS said.
"The denser air and thick clouds would keep the surface in a perpetual murky red twilight, and its large mass means that surface gravity would be around double that on Earth."
Getting to the planet would still require a sci-fi breakthrough in travel for earthlings.
A spaceship traveling close to light speed would take more than 20 years to get there, while our present rocket technology would take 300,000 years.