Wednesday, April 25, 2007

One More For The Space Destination Wish-List

European astronomers, star-gazing from the European Southern Observatory's telescope in La Silla, Chile, have found another space address for us astronaut wannabes to add to our destination wish-list. They've found a planet, a mere 120 trillion miles away, that could potentially be habitable, boasting balmy temperatures in the 32 to 104 degree range, with 1.6 times Earth's gravity (just right for promoting strong muscles and bones), and maybe even liquid water. The planet, dubbed 581c, by astronomers who clearly need to get some creative influences in their lives, circles a red dwarf star once every 13 days, likely without rotating, so the same side faces the star all the time. That lack of spinning is sad news for any inhabitants of the newly-discovered planet who would like to take time out of their busy day to watch a nice sunset, since no turning means there aren't any sunsets. It's a shame, really--they would have been spectacular. The star is much closer to 581c than the Sun is to Earth, on the order of 14 times closer, which, according to Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press, would make the red star "hang in the sky at a size 20 times larger than our moon." (Oooh, pretty.) Don't worry about getting too toasty at that proximity, though. Even at that distance things wouldn't heat up too much, since the red dwarf is much cooler than our Sun. All in all, this planet looks like it's got some potential, the kind of planet that scientists speculate could support life--ours, or some other totally alien species that we could finally confront about those crop circles and invasive medical probes in the mother ship.

Before we start packing for a nice long space voyage, though, we're still going to have to deal with the enormous distances. Even though the planet is circling a star that counts as one of our 100 closest neighbors, it's still 20.5 light years away. That's way too far for us to reach at our present level of technology, unless we wanted to do the generational ship thing, and die in space so that our great-great grandkids can inherit the as yet unexplored planet. The big problem with that (besides dying in space without ever reaching the big other-worldly destination) is that scientists really don't know what we would find once we got there. It could be a rocky planet such as our own, or it could be a big old ball of ice. Right now, it's best guess. You see, these astronomers have determined all of this information about the red dwarf and 581c by examining light wobbles that they can detect from their fancy telescope down in Chile. They are applying their extra-smart physics-savvy brains to exactly what these light wobbles mean, and this possibly-able-to-sustain-life planet is what they've come up with. Do not ask me how, because I don't have a clue. I'm sure it's something to do with gravity's effect on light, and Einstein probably comes in for a bit of the action, but that's as far as my non-physics-savvy brain can get me without going back for another college degree. The one I have in English Lit simply isn't very helpful in extrapolating how they know there's a possibly habitable planet circling this red dwarf, based on the wobbling of a little light. (Actually, that is something that frustrated me about both the articles I read about this planet. They both mentioned the light wobbles, but neither of them told me more of the science in detail. I will probably have to quest more to have that curiosity satisfied.)

In any case, now that they've found a planet just right for adding to the exploration-worthy list (is there any planet not worthy of inclusion on such a list?), there's still a lot for us to learn before we can head out to see it for ourselves and swap recipes with the local alien inhabitants. We still need to learn the basics of long distance space travel and colonization. We have to lick the problem of cosmic radiation and we need propulsion systems that can shorten the journey for us. We also need truly self-sustainable habitats and recycling systems that conserve every bit of air and water, so that a long journey without restocking our provisions with supplies from Earth is even possible. We need efficient energy generation systems, strong, lightweight ship designs, and thousands of other things that will have to be developed and perfected. Sadly, we're not even close. Don't give up hope, though. Our Smart People are working on all these things, and we'll start getting more familiar with how to overcome the problems of space by sending people out into our own solar system. Once we get the whole establishing colonies thing down, by practicing on the Moon and Mars, we're going to gain the expertise to head farther afield, and then we'll get to go exploring, maybe even to 581c. Hopefully by then they'll have come up with a better name.

Note: For a little more reading on the topic, here's a link to

Hat tip: Su