Thursday, September 30, 2010

82. The Search for Other Living Planets

In the final installment of David Attenborough's The Living Planet, he lets various voices air their view of the future of the Earth and its imperiled biodiversity. A zoologist, who is the director of a zoo in Florida, comments on the future of the tiger, as few are left in the wild.  She comforts her audience by declaring that tigers continue to live and breed in captivity.  She further suggests that it would be possible to freeze their DNA so that some day in the future, when it is possible to create a habitat for them on the moon, we can recreate a "wild habitat" for the tiger! 
Cosmologists have been searching for other planets that can sustain life for decades.  And once in a while a candidate is found.  As Stephen Hawking recently stated, it probable that our living planet, the Earth, is not alone.  This statement should not be taken lightly as the conditions that led to emergence of life on Earth are extremely improbable to assemble (see my posts about the Gaia Hypothesis and Biodiveristy).  But if it did happen on Earth, it could have happened in one or more of billions of other planets in the universe.  

However, the general attitude remains that human society can one day "colonize the space" (The Obama administration has already taken steps to privatize it) to allow room for the excess population, to search for new resource once those on the Earth are exhausted or if a nuclear war force the survivors to find a new home!   This sort of ideological madness should not be taken lightly. It create a false sense of the "long term" for the ruling elites and many ordinary folks who look to technology to save them from the worst.  How else can we explain the inaction of the world governments in the face of majority scientific consensus on the societal-caused climate change or continued decline of biodiversity? Or the passivity of even the more informed sectors of society?  

As one scientist pointed out--if you want to find life you need not peer into the night sky.  Just take the time to look all around on our home planet. It is full of life.  Alas many species are disappearing even before being discovered by us due to our social mode of existence.

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New Planet May Be Able to Nurture Organisms

by Dennis Overbye, The New York Times, September 29, 20101

It might be a place that only a lichen or pond scum could love, but astronomers said Wednesday that they had found a very distant planet capable of harboring water on its surface, thus potentially making it a home for plant or animal life.
National Science Foundation and NASA
A planet, as depicted in this rendering, orbits the habitable zone of a star 20 light years from Earth, meaning it could have water on its surface.
Astrophyisical Journal
Nobody from Earth will be visiting anytime soon: The planet, which goes by the bumpy name of Gliese 581g, is orbiting a star about 20 light-years away in the constellation Libra.
But if the finding is confirmed by other astronomers, the planet, which has three to four times the mass of Earth, would be the most Earthlike planet yet discovered, and the first to meet the criteria for being potentially habitable.
“It’s been a long haul,” said Steven S. Vogt of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who, along with R. Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, led the team that made the discovery. “This is the first exoplanet that has the right conditions for water to exist on its surface.”
In a recent report for the National Academy of Science, astronomers declared the finding of such planets one of the major goals of this decade. NASA’s Kepler satellite — which was launched in March 2009 as a way to detect Earthlike bodies — is expected to harvest dozens or hundreds.
Gliese 581g (whose first name is pronounced GLEE-za) circles a dim red star known as Gliese 581, once every 37 days, at a distance of about 14 million miles. That is smack in the middle of the so-called Goldilocks zone, where the heat from the star is neither too cold nor too hot for water to exist in liquid form on its surface.
“This is really the first Goldilocks planet,” Dr. Butler said.
Other astronomers hailed the news as another harbinger that the search for “living planets,” as Dimitar D. Sasselov of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics calls them, is on the right track.
“I’m getting goose bumps,” said Caleb Scharf of Columbia University.
But they expressed caution about this particular planet, noting uncertainties about its density, composition and atmosphere, and the need for another generation of giant telescopes and spacecraft in order to find out anything more about it. Other Goldilocks planets have come and gone in recent years.
The discovery was announced at a news conference Wednesday in Washington, and the findings have been posted on the National Science Foundation’s Web site and will be published in The Astrophysical Journal.
The authors said the relative ease by which planet was found — in only 11 years — led them to believe that such planets must be common.
“Either we have just been incredibly lucky in this early detection, or we are truly on the threshold of a second Age of Discovery,” they wrote in their paper.
Pressed during the news conference about the possibility of life on Gliese 581g, Dr. Vogt protested that he was an astronomer, not a biologist. Then he relented, saying that, speaking strictly personally, he believed that “the chances of life on this planet are almost 100 percent.”
Asked the same question, Dr. Butler squirmed and said, “I like data.” After a pause he added: “And what the data say is that the planet is the right distance from the star to have water and the right mass to hold an atmosphere. What is needed simply to find lots and lots of these things is lots and lots of telescope time.”
The latest results from Gliese 581 were harvested from observations by two often competing teams, using telescopes in Chile and Hawaii to measure the slight gravitational tugs the star gets as its planets swing by.
This is hardly the first time around the block for Gliese 581, which is a longtime favorite of planet hunters and now is known to have six planets in its retinue. It is a dwarf star about one-third the mass of the Sun and only about one-hundredth as bright, allowing planets to huddle closer to the campfire. “It hauntingly reminds us of our own solar system,” Dr. Butler said.
Two of Gliese’s planets have already had their moment in the limelight as possible Goldilocks planets. One, known as Gliese 581c, circles just on the inner edge of the habitable zone and was thus thought to be habitable three years ago. But further analysis suggested that the greenhouse effect would turn it into a stifling hell. Another planet, just on the outer edge of the Goldilocks zone, is probably too cold.
“One is on the hot side, the other is on cold side,” and the new planet is right in between, Dr. Vogt said. “It’s bookended.”
He and his colleagues estimated the average temperature on the surface of Gliese 581g to be between 10 and minus 24 degrees Fahrenheit, about the same as a summer day in Antarctica.
But that means very little, he said, because the planet, like all the others in that system, keeps the same face to the star all the time. So the temperature could vary wildly from the day-side to the night-side of the planet, meaning that an organism could perhaps find a comfortable zone to live in.
But nobody really knows what is going on on Gliese 581g, said Sara Seager, a planetary astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “If it was all carbon dioxide, like Venus, it would be pretty hot,” she said, adding that she would give the planet a 90 percent chance of holding water.
That, she pointed out, is faint praise in scientific circles. “Sounds high, but would you fly on a plane that only had an 8 or 9 chance out of 10 of making it?” she asked.
“Everyone is so primed to say here’s the next place we’re going to find life,” Dr. Seager said, “but this isn’t a good planet for follow-up.”

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