Astronomers Find New Planet That Could Support Life - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Astronomers Find New Planet That Could Support Life

USATODAY.COM - Astronomers unveiled a new candidate Wednesday in their search for an Earth-like planet outside our solar system in a "habitable" zone, one just right for conditions that could support life.

"This is the most Goldilocks planet yet found," says team co-leader Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington (D.C.) "Not too hot for liquid water, and not too cold."

Dubbed Gliese 581g, the planet is about 120 trillion miles away, circling a red dwarf star, according to a forthcoming report in The Astrophysical Journal. One face of the world is gravitationally locked to face its star, trapped in perpetual sunlight with the far side in perpetual darkness, says the report. Impossible to determine with present telescopes, life there would enjoy a permanent sunset (or sunrise) in a ring stretching from pole to pole, says study co-leader Steven Vogt of the University of California-Santa Cruz.

Smaller than our sun, the star Gliese 581 has five other planets beside Gliese 581g, which has a "year" of just under 37 days for each orbit of its star. All six planets were discovered through observations of the back-and-forth gravitational wobbles they induce on the star, as were most of the roughly 400 planets that have been detected orbiting nearby stars since 1995. Astronomers have reported other planets in the "habitable" zones of their stars since then, but Gliese 581g looks like the best fit yet for a place where life as we know it would thrive.

"It would be a great planet if you liked sunsets," says MIT planetary scientist Sara Seager, who was not part of the study. "What's exciting is this one turned up so close, and so soon, which means there must be many more."

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