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Old 10-02-2010, 12:10 PM   #1
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Planet Gliese 581 g - Could it support life?

How do you find life on an alien planet?
By Mike Wall
updated 10/1/2010 1:39:01 PM ET

After spending decades searching for alien planets capable of harboring life, astronomers may have found one. So how can they check to see if life actually exists on this alien world?
On Wednesday, a team of researchers announced the discovery of Gliese 581g, a rocky, roughly Earth-size planet in its parent star's so-called "habitable zone" a just-right range that can allow liquid water to exist.
One of the planet's discoverers said during a briefing that, in his personal opinion, "the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent." To determine if this is true, researchers will have to scrutinize Gliese 581g from afar, searching its atmosphere for certain telltale molecules.But it might be a while before they have the tools to do this properly.
Gliese 581g isn't far from Earth in the great scheme of things — only 20.5 light-years or so. But that translates to about 120 trillion miles (194 trillion kilometers) — 500 million times farther away from us than the moon. [ Tour the six Gliese 581 planets]
So human-built probes won't be getting out there anytime soon. But one way to look for life on Gliese 581g is to turn our radio telescopes toward the planet, searching for patterns in emissions of electromagnetic radiation.
Such patterns could indicate the presence of intelligent life, according to Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. The Gliese 581 star system has intrigued researchers for a while, so they've already taken a few looks. During SETI's Project Phoenix, which surveyed almost 1,000 star systems from 1995 to 2005, astronomers looked at Gliese 581 twice, Shostak said.
"No signal was found during these observations," he told Space.com.

What's in your air?
Life doesn't have to be intelligent and advanced for astronomers to pick it up. Studying Gliese 581g's atmosphere, for example, could theoretically reveal the presence of organisms as simple as microbes.
This method assumes the alien planet has an atmosphere, likely a necessity for life to take hold. Gliese 581g's discoverers reported that the planet's gravity is probably strong enough to hold onto an atmosphere, but they didn't definitively detect one.
"The first thing is, you've got to have an atmosphere," said Bill Borucki of NASA's Ames Research Center, the science principal investigator for NASA's planet-hunting Kepler mission. "If there is one, then what's the composition of that atmosphere?"
If astronomers detect the signatures of large, complicated compounds like chlorofluorocarbons, which people have manufactured to use as refrigerants and propellants life is likely, according to Borucki.
"You're looking for chemicals like that," he told Space.com. "If they're there, somebody's making them."
But other, simpler chemicals could also be strong evidence for life, as long as their ratios are right.
"Ideally, you'd be looking for a complement of compounds that normally don't exist in chemical equilibrium," said Jon Jenkins of the SETI Institute, the analysis lead for the Kepler mission.
As an example, both Jenkins and Borucki pointed to methane and oxygen.
"You typically don't have both gases present in significant quantities unless life is present," Jenkins told Space.com. But scientists would have to be careful how they interpreted such information, he added, because we don't know much about how other planetary systems tick.
"Though scientists get excited about these discoveries just like the public does, we also tend to be pretty cautious," Jenkins said

Tough job for today's tech
So scanning Gliese 581g's atmosphere, if it has one, would give us a good idea if the planet harbors life or not. But it'll probably be a few decades before we can do this properly.
Astronomers have characterized the atmospheres of alien planets before. But those other worlds are bigger and much hotter, meaning they throw off lots of radiation for our instruments to pick up. Gliese 581g is relatively close to Earth, but its other traits make it a tough read.
It's only about three to four times as massive as Earth, for example, with an average surface temperature between minus 24 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 31 to minus 12 degrees Celsius).
"Because they are cool and small, planets like this are very difficult to study," Jenkins said. "It's easier to detect something than to characterize it in detail."
Jenkins said that Gliese 581g also apparently doesn't transit its parent star, meaning it doesn't cross in front of it from our perspective on Earth. Astronomers can learn a lot about a planet's atmosphere by studying starlight that passes through it, but this technique is likely not an option with Gliese 581g.
As a result, the tools astronomers currently have at their disposal likely can't determine what's in Gliese 581g's air, according to Borucki and Jenkins. So researchers will have to wait for new instruments to come into play.

A few decades away
One promising tool mentioned by Borucki, Jenkins and Shostak is NASA's proposed Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) mission, which would use an array of telescopes orbiting Earth to generate detailed images of alien planets.
TPF would employ advanced techniques to reduce the glare of the exoplanets' parent stars, allowing the mission to pick up faint radiation coming from planets. The mission could theoretically detect chemicals like methane and oxygen in the atmospheres of alien worlds such as Gliese 581g.
The TPF mission, however, is in limbo. It is currently unfunded, with no launch date set. So researchers will probably have to wait a while before they can see what Gliese 581g's atmosphere is made of.
Whenever TPF, or something like it, comes along, it may have a long list of planets to check out, Jenkins said.
"I would predict that [Gliese 581g] is just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "Fifteen or 20 years ago, very few people thought we'd be discovering such extrasolar planets anytime soon. This find just shows how far we've come."

My wishful thinking is off the charts. But of course I'm pretty skeptical. Who wouldn't be?
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Old 10-03-2010, 10:38 AM   #2
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I've always subscribed to the theory that there is such an unfathomable amount of planets and star systems in our universe, it makes the probability of alien life almost 99.99999%. Hopefully someday aliens will visit and we can have sex with them, like Will Riker did when those aliens kidnapped him.
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Old 10-03-2010, 11:06 AM   #3
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I think we will discover alien life in my lifetime. Whether it's intelligent, evolved life is another matter.

I hope they name the planet "Goldilocks" BTW.
Then, they could be called "Goldlockians"--which sounds cool.
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Old 10-03-2010, 11:10 AM   #4
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this porridge is juuuuuust right
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Old 10-03-2010, 11:11 AM   #5
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this porridge is juuuuuust right
This bed is just right. Wink. Wink. Nudge. Nudge. Say no more.

Sexy Goldlockians.
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Old 10-03-2010, 04:48 PM   #6
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This size of the universe is something I like considering, our knowledge or theories about it keep changing (evolving).

I think it is a forgone conclusion that life exists on other bodies in space.
Our water (or most of it) may have been brought to earth by asteroids.

Complex life, or even intelligent life out there, someplace? Yes, very likely.
That we will even encounter it. Very, very unlikely.

This new planet, how far away is it?

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The star Gliese 581 is in the constellation Libra. It is one of one-hundred stars that are closest to the Earth. Its distance of 20.5 light-years (LYs) away makes it about 123 trillion miles (205 trillion kilometers) from the Earth. (One light-year is the distance that light travels in vacuum in one year—a distance of about 6 trillion miles, or 10 trillion kilometers.) In addition, the star is about one third the size of the Sun.
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Old 10-03-2010, 08:05 PM   #7
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This bed is just right. Wink. Wink. Nudge. Nudge. Say no more.

Sexy Goldlockians.
haha watch them be ugly and green
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Old 10-03-2010, 10:22 PM   #8
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I think we are the only planet in the universe that has
living beings with free will.
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Old 10-03-2010, 10:39 PM   #9
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I think we are the only planet in the universe that has
living beings with free will.
I think it's very possible we are one of the oldest races in the universe.
Hence, no one else really around worth talking to.
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Old 10-03-2010, 10:48 PM   #10
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I think it's very possible we are one of the oldest races in the universe.
Hence, no one else really around worth talking to.


Scientists have been sending out radio signals since the eary 1950s.
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Old 10-03-2010, 10:53 PM   #11
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I don't think radio signals mean that much.
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Old 10-03-2010, 11:03 PM   #12
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Scientists have been sending out radio signals since the eary 1950s.
But science is worthless, so that's really a moot point.
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Old 10-03-2010, 11:23 PM   #13
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Been over this one before, but our own galaxy is what, 100,000 light years across? We are stuck out in the boondocks on a fairly minor spiral arm. If, hypothetically, some comparable species arose in a star system near the opposite edge, any contact physical or otherwise between them and us would take at least 100,000 years from the time at which they reached a suitable level of advanced civilisation. This is a problem because although we don't know anything about (hypothetical) aliens, right here on Earth it remains to be seen whether functioning high technology civilisation can escape its own bottlenecks and last for 100,000 - let alone 20,000 - years. Sure, the aliens would be unimaginably more advanced than we are (yeah, sure, take it as given! or not), but it takes resources to get up that first mountain, no matter who you are.

We could be one of the older species, or we could be one of the latterday species. Either way others could have done their dash, risen and fallen, long before us... or still exist at a microbial level (and there's nothing to demand that life will always get beyond that; don't they speculate that a couple of the ice moons in our own system might host such life?)

All of which is to say, meh.

And even the twenty light years to Gliese 581g? Notwithstanding some of the more wild and wacky predictions, on any forseeable human technology the colonisation of that star system would create a permanent alien civilisation of our own. It would be comparable to the isolation of Australian, American and Eurasian peoples in our own deep past. And we all know how well that worked out.

Well alright, there's always a forty-year round trip of lightspeed communication, there's that. But what's to say the folks at the other end might not develop their own differing priorities. Forty years is a while.
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Old 10-04-2010, 01:02 AM   #14
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I find it funny how we assume they're in some way like us.

As if life cant exist in another manner. As if it needs H2O. As if they need the same conditions as us. As if they need oxygen. As if they would produce CFC's. As if our habitable zone is equivalent to their habitable zone. As if they understand what we understand.

The development of our lives is so incredibly complex. Perhaps not nearly as complex as the universe is vast, but none the less incredibly complex. Do I doubt that life exists outside of our planet? Of course it does. The universe is seemingly infinite. Do I think there is any species or race of life that is human out there? Not without a God, no sir.

We are so incredibly complex. That needs to be understood. Even under the exact same conditions, atmosphirically, planet-wise, etc. humans could not be replicated. That needs to be understood. In fact, that applies to any complex species. Or even one-cell organisms.

If life exists, which I'd say it more than likely does, it's not like us(which isnt to say it's not intellegent). Even the concept of male and female is questionable. Unless a Godly being made it happen, I really do not think life exists as we know it.
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Old 10-04-2010, 01:26 AM   #15
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All the planets that are unlike ours, that we're able to relatively closely observe, dont contain life. therefore, it's not unreasonable to assume that it takes the same conditions that made life on Earth possible to make life on other planets possible. I dont think anyone is assuming they would look anything like us. Those comments are mostly made in jest.
That's not to say it would be impossible to find life on a very different environment, but if we're going to be looking, we might as well explore the more obvious avenues first
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