Home > Space Exploration > DVICE: Astronomers find ‘Super-Earths’ orbiting another sun

DVICE: Astronomers find ‘Super-Earths’ orbiting another sun

20-Jun-08 12:28 am EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

I’d wondered when this was gonna happen. Of course, as usual, the "fluff" media out there didn’t quite get it right.  Calling a chunk of rock 4 times larger than Earth orbiting (actually careens around) its parent star in 20 days  with absolutely no atmospheric analysis beyond refined guesswork doesn’t really qualify a planet as a "Super-Earth". But finding objects that small around stars other than our own Sun is one pretty remarkable achievement.  The "glare" or "halo" that surrounds a star – even ones relatively close by, like Barnard’s Star (@ 5.98 light-years [or ly] from Earth), Alpha Centauri (the nearest @ 4.2 ly), or 61 Cygni (@ 11.36 ly) – prevents anyone from directly observing objects within the star system.  This leaves scientists to deduce the existence and properties of planetary phenomena using gravitationally-derived data, such as the "wobble" observed when viewing the target star with a powerful telescope, which is actually the result of objects affecting the transmission of light and small variance in the star’s position over time.

In the years ahead, NASA plans to launch an array of space telescopes in order to obtain observations so detailed that Earth-sized planets and smaller will become readily visible for the very first time in human history.  At that point, we may indeed finally get an answer to the burning question that’s been asked since our species first realized there was such a thing as outer space: are we alone?  Now that we can detect planets around nearby stars, increasingly that question is becoming: "how alone are we?"  With so many planets, the probability that another Earth-like planet has evolved at some point in the past several billion years with life on it seems certain.  But such a planet might not be close.  Even if it is, there are many other questions to consider – did intelligent life evolve, did it evolve before us or are inhabitants less evolved?  What kinds of life are there in our stellar neighborhood?  We already know some of our stellar neighbors are much older than the Sun and if life did evolve on planets around those stars, it could easily play host to a civilization much older than ours…

It seems that finding another Earth-like planet will answer one question at the expense of getting a whole lot more.  Here’s hoping it does, anyway.

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Categories: Space Exploration
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Terry Glavin

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