Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Sense of Wonder

This is one of those stories that will be flash in the pan for the mainstream media, but is unbelievably big for anyone who, well, knows how big it actually is.

For the first time, astronomers have discovered a planet (Gliese 581 c) that could potentially support life as we know it. Small enough to avoid crushing gravity, big enough to retain an atmosphere, and just the right distance from its star to keep the temperature between 32° and 104° F, allowing for liquid water — in other words, pretty much just like Earth, by astronomical standards.

Now, we shouldn't overstate the case. News articles are already calling the planet "habitable," which is only a possibility at this point. The planet may or may not have an atmosphere that would be friendly to life. It orbits a red dwarf star, which, due to the star's dimness, means that to be at habitable temperature the planet is so close that tides have locked one face to always face the star, and only certain hypothesized atmospheres could transfer heat efficiently enough to keep the air from freezing out on the far side. And the part where even with near-magical technology it would take decades to reach doesn't bode well for vacationing.

Nonetheless, it is not impossible that one could fly their magical spaceship to 581 c, pop the hatch, and breathe the air without a spacesuit. And whether that unlikely scenario turns out to be the case or not, in the history of humanity we've never been able to say it was even a possibility before today. And that's something.


  1. All I want to know is: Do the martians have two sexes, like we do?

  2. wrote my paper for inorganic chem on this :)

  3. the whole tide locking thing alone makes me want to visit and check it out. I bet it's full of nifty aquatic life and I would love to see what (if anything) might exist on the other side.

    man, I really am a nerd :D