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Today scientists announced the discovery of the exoplanet Gliese 581 g which lies 20.3 light years away from Earth in the planetary system of the red dwarf star Gliese 581 (a star with one third the mass of our sun). The planet has three times the mass of Earth and is almost certainly tidally locked to its star (in the same fashion that the moon always presents the same face to earth). It revolves much more closely around its dim little star than our planet does around our sun: the yearly orbit of Gliese 581 g is just 37 of our earth days. With four known planets, the star Gliese 581 had already featured the largest known planetary system outside of our own (before two more worlds were added to the system in today’s announcement). When exoplanet Gliese 581 d was discovered in 2007, it was regarded as the most earthlike exoplanet and scientists speculated about its potential for harboring life (though Gliese 581 d is now regarded as too cold to have liquid water). Oh, the discovery of Gliese 581 f was also announced today–but nobody cares since it is located far outside what scientists regard as the habitable zone.
The planet was discovered by the Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey headed up by Dr. Steven Vogt. The team has taken to calling it “Zarmina” after Steven Vogt’s wife, which I think this is a very beautiful name for a world. I’m also moved by the fact that Dr. Vogt’s first impulse would be to name the world after his spouse (and I also like the fact that she has a Pashtun name). Unfortunately we’ll probably get stuck with something less euphonious—probably “Gliese 581 g”. I guess our astronomical naming conventions confer mixed blessings—I’m still happy we don’t call Uranus “Georgium Sidus” like Sir William Herschel desired.
Speaking of Herschel and planetary discovery, I was pleased to see that Vogt continued Sir William’s glorious tradition of exuberant speculation about extraterrestrial life. At this morning’s press conference, Vogt boldly asserted that “my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent.” He then spoke about the possibilities of polar bear like life-forms living on the planet’s cold night side, thermophilic life-forms on the hot half, and temperate life forms living on the twilight ring dividing the two extremes.
As with most science news, the planet’s discovery hasn’t produced a huge splash in the media (the discovery of the most earthlike planet so far known was greatly overshadowed by Tony Curtis’ death). The few short mainstream news article to mention this discovery were striking to me for their comments sections. Although many people leaving comments were filled with wonder and curiosity, a distressing number seemed very ignorant of basic scientific principles (or basic principles of anything). A shocking number of commenters wanted to send all Republicans to Gliese 581g (an equal number wished to send all Democrats instead). What happened in or national discourse that a citizen’s first reaction to hearing about a new planet is to banish his political foes there? When did the United States become Renaissance Florence? Other people demanded that we not exploit the newly discovered planet’s resources but instead concentrate on solving our problems here on earth (20.3 light years might seem like a tiny number but it converts to 1.92048727 × 1017 meters). We probably have better sources of bauxite and blood diamonds! In a similar vein, quite a few folks demanded that we stop studying the heavens altogether and provide them with cushy jobs, new sofas, and tv dinners. In short, the comments made me sad and frustrated.
Corot and Kepler, the two big missions for spotting earthlike worlds (from the French and NASA respectively), are only just beginning to yield discoveries, so I expect we will be hearing about a lot of earth-like worlds. Let’s hope humankind grows technologically, socially, and politically as the new planets are tabulated!
[Also, rest in Peace Tony Curtis, I loved you in “The Great Race” when I was 6.]