Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Earth-like Planet Found

Here's some pretty amazing news for you (h/t Adam):

For the first time astronomers have discovered a planet outside our solar system that is potentially habitable, with Earth-like temperatures, a find researchers described Tuesday as a big step in the search for "life in the universe."

Until now, all 220 planets astronomers have found outside our solar system have had the "Goldilocks problem." They've been too hot, too cold or just plain too big and gaseous, like uninhabitable Jupiter.

The new planet seems just right — or at least that's what scientists think.

And this story from NPR:

Scientists calculate that average temperatures on the surface of the planet should be around 32 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Mayor says that is a friendly environment for liquid water and maybe even life.

"We do not have any reason to believe that life exists on that planet," [Astronomer Michael] Mayor concedes. "We can only say that we have the temperature to permit the development of life. I would say it's one very interesting step in a long process going in the direction to having some major discovery related to life in the universe."

Unfortunately, we don't appear to have many tools at hand to exploit this discovery:

[Astronomer Alan] Boss says we could learn a lot more if scientists launched a space telescope that is specially designed to look at faraway planets. NASA has one in development called the Terrestrial Planet Finder, but it has been delayed indefinitely by budget woes.

"Things like Terrestrial Planet Finder are no longer really in the active NASA plan," Boss says.

...don't count on visiting anytime soon. Even though Gliese 581 is close, compared with other stars, it still would take over 20 years to get there — if we could travel at the speed of light, which we can't do.
There's more on the Terrestrial Planet Finder here, as well as this Discover Magazine article from 2002 that explains the development of the idea behind the TPF, and this article from last month about what is essentially the termination of the program. Unfortunately, since President Bush's largely derided Mars mission proposal, space exploration has taken a hit in the U.S. The Space Shuttle will be retired in 2010, and a planned replacement manned space-flight program won't begin until 2014 (if then.) A moon mission is planned for 2018. The goal is an eventual permanent moon base at some point in the future, after which a mission to Mars will be some point in the distant future.

I'm all for manned space-flight. For me it's impossible to imagine a time when humans are not living and working in space in some capacity, and though I'll probably be in my fifties before I see even the first attempt to get to Mars, the possibilities are exciting nonetheless. But for a fraction of the cost we could also be launching a variety of space telescopes more powerful than the Hubble and sending robot explorers to other planets in our solar system and beyond which would then report back their findings. In my opinion, a balanced approach to space exploration should focus on both.

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