Sunday, November 13, 2011

ET Phone Goldilocks

An astronomer picked up a mysterious pulse of light coming from the direction of the newly discovered Earth-like planet almost two years ago, it has emerged.

Dr Ragbir Bhathal, a scientist at the University of Western Sydney, picked up the odd signal in December 2008, long before it was announced that the star Gliese 581 has habitable planets in orbit around it.

A member of the Australian chapter of SETI, the organisation that looks for communication from distant planets, Dr Bhathal had been sweeping the skies when he discovered a 'suspicious' signal from an area of the galaxy that holds the newly-discovered Gliese 581g.

The remarkable coincidence adds another layer of mystery to the announcement last night that scientists had discovered another planet in the system: Gliese 581g - the most Earth-like planet ever found.

Dr Bhathal's discovery had come just months before astronomers announced that they had found a similar, slightly less habitable planet around the same star 20 light years away. This planet was called Gliese 581e.

When asked about his discovery at the time Dr Bhathal admitted he had been really excited about what he had possibly stumbled across.

He told VICE Media: 'Whenever there’s a clear night, I go up to the observatory and do a run on some of the celestial objects. Looking at one of these objects, we found this signal.

'And you know, I got really excited with it. So next I had to analyse it. We have special software to analyse these signals, because when you look at celestial objects through the equipment we have, you also pick up a lot of noise.'

He went on: 'We found this very sharp signal, sort of a laser lookalike thing which is the sort of thing we’re looking for - a very sharp spike. And that is what we found. So that was the excitement about the whole thing.'

For months after his discovery Dr Bhathal scanned the skies for a second signal to see whether it was just a glitch in his instrumentation but his search came to nothing...

Dr Steven Vogt, who led the study at the University of California, Santa Cruz, today said that he was '100 per cent sure ' that there was life on the planet.

The planet lies in the star's 'Goldilocks zone' - the region in space where conditions are neither too hot or too cold for liquid water to form oceans, lakes and rivers.

The planet also appears to have an atmosphere, a gravity like our own and could well be capable of life. Researchers say the findings suggest the universe is teeming with world like our own.
'If these are rare, we shouldn't have found one so quickly and so nearby,'

'The number of systems with potentially habitable planets is probably on the order of 10 or 20 per cent, and when you multiply that by the hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, that's a large number. There could be tens of billions of these systems in our galaxy.'

He told Discovery News: 'Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say that the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent. I have almost no doubt about it'.

The planet is so far away, spaceships travelling close to the speed of light would take 20 years to make the journey. If a rocket was one day able to travel at a tenth of the speed of light, it would take 200 years to make the journey...

It takes just 37 days to orbit its sun which means its seasons last for just a few days. One side of the planet always faces its star and basks in perpetual daylight, while the other is in perpetual darkness.

The most suitable place for life or future human colonists would be in the 'grey' zone - the band between darkness and light that circles the planet.

'Any emerging life forms would have a wide range of stable climates to choose from and to evolve around, depending on their longitude,' said Dr Vogt who reports the find in the Astrophysical Journal...

'This planet doesn't have days and nights. Wherever you are on this planet, the sun is in the same position all the time. You have very stable zones where the ecosystem stays the same temperature... basically forever,' Vogt said.

'If life can evolve, it's going to have billions and billions of years to adapt to the surface. Given the ubiquity of water, it seems probable that this thing actually has liquid water. On the surface of the Earth, everywhere you have liquid water you have life,' Vogt added.

Astronomers have now found six planets in orbit around Gliese 581 - the most discovered in a planetary system other than our own solar system.
Like the solar system, the planets orbiting Gliese 581 have mostly circular orbits.

Two of its detected planets have previously been proposed as habitable planets. However they lie at the extremes of the Goldilocks Zone - one on the hot side, the other on the cold side.
Gliese 581g, in contrast, lies right in the middle...


Diameter - 1.2 to 1.4 times that of the Earth

Mass - 3.1 and 4.3 times that of the Earth

Average surface temperature - between -24F and 10F (-31C and -12C)

Distance from the Earth - 20 light years or 118,000,000,000,000 miles

Time needed to travel to Gliese 581g in a rocket travelling one tenth the speed of light, or 19,000 miles per second - 200 years

One of six planets to orbit the star Gliese 581

Length of year - 37 Earth days

Gravity - similar or slightly higher than Earth
Distance from its sun - around six million miles
The planet orbits a red dwarf which is 50 times cooler and a third the size of our Sun

Composition - rocky with liquid water and atmosphere.

Does ET live on Goldilocks planet? How scientists spotted 'mysterious pulse of light' from direction of newly-discovered '2nd Earth' two years ago
Niall Firth
17th August 2011

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