New Planet Habitable? Slow Down There Speed Racer!

Last week it was announced that a new planet was found circling a red dwarf star similar to our Sun.  Like Earth, it circles its sun in the Goldilocks zone.  In other words, it’s at a distance that is not too hot and not too cold, but just right.  It doesn’t rotate like Earth, but more like our Moon, so one side is always light, and one is always dark, leaving a band that would have a decent temperature.  They also have calculated that its gravity is probably very similar to Earth, and maybe slightly stronger.

At this point, that’s really all they know, but it’s already being treated that life is a given.  My son came home from school and announced that a planet has been found with water and trees.  I have not contacted the school to find out how much is exaggeration, but going by the comments from some of the scientific community, I would not be surprised.

“Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent,” said Steven Vogt, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, during a press briefing today. “I have almost no doubt about it.” 1

One hundred percent?  We don’t even know for sure that it has water, unless we go by the artist rendering that is circulating the Internet 2.  The possibility of liquid water is just that: a possibility.  We don’t even know what kind of atmosphere it has.  On top of that, we may never know for sure.  We just don’t have the technology to reach it.  Phil Plait of the blog Bad Astronomy says that despite the positive similarities, “this does not mean the planet is habitable, or even very Earthlike” 3.  A voice of reason.

The exciting news for the scientific community is that this planet is relatively close, astronomically speaking, and if we have found a planet in the Goldilocks zone this close, there is the potential for millions of planets in this zone.  Although this is true, and should be exciting, this doesn’t mean that any of them are habitable, let alone contain life.

We need to slow down, think about what we have actually found, and separate wishful thinking from fact.  As much as some people would like to announce we’ve found life, the fact is we have not.


  1. Jeanna Bryner, “Odds of Life on Newfound Earth-Size Planet ‘100 Percent,’ Astronomer Says,” SPACE.com, September 29, 2010. 

  2. Lynette Cook, “Zarmina’s World,” Astronomy Picture of the Day, October 1, 2010 

  3. Phil Plait, “Possible earthlike planet found in the Goldilocks zone of a nearby star!,” Bad Astronomy, September 29, 2010. 

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