Astronomers have discovered perhaps the first "super-Earth" with an atmosphere, and say that there's a strong possibility of the planet having liquid water on its surface. That's still no Earth -- super-Earths are bigger than Earth but smaller than gas giants -- but it's darn close compared to other known exoplanets. Perhaps equally stunning, astronomers simply used a small array of 16-inch telescopes that any amateur stargazer could have in their garage or backyard.
The new world orbits a red dwarf star just 40 light years away from Earth, and became visible to Earth-based telescopes during a planetary eclipse when it passed in front of its relatively dim star. That crucial moment allowed astronomers to not only spot the super-Earth, but also to calculate the planet's size and mass. They even hope to figure out the chemical makeup of the planetary atmosphere, based on the filtering effect that it has on light from the red dwarf.
Scientists have mostly figured out the existence of super-Earths indirectly, based on the wobble effect that such orbiting planets have on their host stars. The newly-discovered GJ 1214b now joins CoRoT-7-b as the only two super-Earths that have actually been seen passing in front of their host stars. Such instances provide the ideal circumstances for astronomers to gauge characteristics of the planets.
But those passing moments have proved when looking at sun-like stars, where planets have large orbits that make such planetary eclipses relatively rare. Sun-like stars also shine relatively brightly and can blind most telescopes trying to spot any passing planets, which means astronomers would need to rely on serious space hardware such as NASA's Kepler Space Telescope.
In this case, astronomers chose a different strategy of scoping out the more common dim stars. A relative lack of brightness compared to sun-like stars meant that even relatively weak ground-based telescopes could spot any planets passing in front of the stars. The team had barely begun its survey of 2,000 pre-selected red dwarfs when it hit the jackpot, and that bodes well for turning up many more planets.
"Either we got really lucky, or these planets are common," said David Charbonneau, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, during a special media webcast.
Luck also involved finding a super-Earth that orbits its host star once every 38 hours. Such an orbit puts the planet closer to its star than the planet Mercury is to our sun.
GJ 1214b still represents an almost-paradise as far as habitable planets go, because its host star's feeble light compensates for the close orbit and ensures more balmy temperatures than those of hellish Mercury.
But the crushing atmospheric pressure -- not unlike that of Venus -- probably means that no life as we know it exists on the planet. That same atmosphere probably also prevents any light from reaching the planetary surface.
Still, Charbonneau thinks that the discovery of GJ 1214b just marks the beginning. He points out that other super-Earths may very well have wider orbits around the same host star, which would mean that they pass less frequently in front of said star. Given some time, astronomers may yet find those unknown cousins to GJ 1214b -- and the wider orbits would mean cooler temperatures that could make them more likely candidates for hosting life.
Doesn't really matter when we have no viable ways of communicating with them. If there is a them...
What's the point of communicating with something if you don't know it exists? We have to discover something before there's an attempt to communicate with it. But once it's discovered, it's just a matter of time before we figure out how to do it. Gotta get our ducks lined up. Sooo... it kinda does matter that we discover them before we try communicating with them. If... WHEN there is a "them"
They are talking either research or colonies no mention of "them" in this article
I was commenting on the reply TO the article, not the article itself.
50 light years? how long wuld that take to get there? planets that are habitable to humans makes me excited.
i wuld leave everything here to be one of the first to live there
Sorry, that was a typo -- it should be 40 light years, not 50.
@ stuntman14 - 40 light years. Well, it would depend on the type of propulsion system used.
Travelling at a constant speed of 240,000 km/hr, it would take 19,000 years to travel approximately 1/10th of the distance, about 4.3 light years. You might chop off a few years by harnessing gravity and slingshooting the space craft to a higher velocity.
Or you could try a nuclear propulsion system, riding on a series of nuclear explosions, if the ban were lifted, and if you managed to accelerate to about 5% of the speed of light you would get there in about 850 years. I suggest bringing a thick book.
Even traveling at 50% the speed of light (absolutely unrealistic for any form of travel we will create any time soon) it would take 80 years to get there.
Just to clarify, I originally had a typo in my story that said 50 light years instead of 40 light years. I have since corrected it, but Stuntman14 was only referring to what he saw in the original version.
And yes, I don't think we'll be sending missions to explore said planet anytime soon ... but you can be sure that astronomers will be examining the planet from afar.
I wouldn't want to be the poor sole to explore the planet, seeing as that it is a super-earth classification or about 4.5 the size of earth. Gravity would really suck on the planet.
By really suck, you mean kill you instantly, right, cause it would.
We can't get people next door (Mars). We can hardly get them out the door (into space) anymore. Picking up the paper from the mat (the moon) is still a few years off (even though we did it before).
The earliest and the fastest things we have shot into space haven't left the neighborhood (solar system) yet, and people are anxious to see people on something so far away that if we had people there sending a message home right now ("Hey, we got here!") our great grandchildren would be the ones recieving it.
The gravity wouldn't kill you. It would just make you 3-4 times your body weight. You would probably adapt to the difference in time. That being said, reproduction would likely be impossible. No embryo would develop in those conditions.
their is definitely other life in the universe and it is very very very highly likely that they have already visited Earth many many many times. UFO sightings? Abdutions? World Governments working for them? This isnt sc-fy any more people. The people of the unites stats ARE NOT lying to everyone. The government is. Their may not be life on that planet but it is ver very possible. WE have life....
Transportaion would be easy. We from earth may not be able to figure out how to travle those ways yet, but its not impossible. Worm holes? Gravitaionl chamber? Rips in space and time? Beleive me, i dont know how to do it, but it can be done.
Dont be closed minded and say, well since we cant do it then know one can... Can you run a mile in under 4min? Can you build a computer? oh wel, i guess its not possible...
Open your mind. Life is out their and its interacting with us. Discloure will happend soon. Be prepared.
Since it will take a long time if we were to go to the "super earth" we could either send robots, though scientists have found a way to increase our life span by maybe.......... 2000 years.
Wait, I forgot it wasn't 2000 yrs it was 200 and im pretty sure that won't help at all.
I hate it when it is a rocky giant instead of a gas giant.
I hate getting older...
A super-Earth must be cooler in order to be the base for creatures' development.
Owe propulsion system really suck, I can't understand why nobody invented any thing better yet. Well except ion-drive with it's extrimely weak thrust.
@ Mr. Guy
Actually we don't need to extend our life spans, we could just use a quick fix and come up with cryostasis, which would solve the need for tedious human experimentation with genes and DNA. The human Genome can survive almost indefinitely due to the application of simple science: things that are frozen mean their atoms move slower, which means their particles move slower, and so on, until we reach the whole human which would be "moving" slower through time... meaning we would age slower. If only we could stop the break up of these atoms from rapid heating and other physical forces...