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We Are Not Alone in the Universe
European astronomers discover most Earth-like planet yet in Libra constellation
Alex Argote (alexphil)     Print Article 
Published 2007-04-30 09:06 (KST)   
The search for otherworldly life or extra-terrestrial intelligence may have moved to a new and exciting level. A team of astronomers has found a steppingstone in the quest by spotting an extrasolar planet having features similar to Earth's.

Using the enormous telescope of the European Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile, the stargazers discovered the new planet last week -- a discovery that could change man's outlook in life and in the vast cosmos as well. Orbiting a red dwarf star called Gliese 581, the planet was deduced to show much promise as leading scientists agreed that it has the right size and temperature, and most importantly, lies in the star's habitable zone, which makes the planet neither hot nor cold.

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Red dwarves are dim, faint stars that give off red light and last longer than yellow and brilliant stars like our sun.

Long neglected by the scientific community, red dwarves are now the object of close attention and respect by astronomers since they might offers clues to the whereabouts of our elusive neighbors, if they exist at all.

Scientists say the new world, Gliese 581 C, is just five times as large as Earth. Most of the experts believe it may contain water in liquid form since it is in the habitable zone of the red dwarf, which is about 10.5 light years or 120 trillion miles away from our solar system.

The head of the European team that made the discovery, Swiss scientist Michel Mayor, said that the planet's diameter, atmospheric make up, and chemical contents have yet to be determined. Mayor, who holds tenure at the University of Geneva, also helped design the special equipment attached to the La Silla telescope.

"The instrument can split light wherein experts can find wobbles in various wavelengths, and this method can help in revealing to the trained eye of astronomers the faint signs of other worlds in the deepest reaches of inter stellar space," Mayor explained.

"The instrument is absolutely fantastic and operates with great precision," he added.

The Swiss scientist, who was a co-finder of the first planet to be discovered outside the human solar system in 1995, said that although he is unsure of the presence of other life forms within the immediate galactic neighborhood, he is still excited at the faint possibility of life in other worlds.

For more than a decade, astronomers and scientists have been setting their sights on the vast night and seeming nothingness of deep space in the search for the holy grail of modern astronomy -- finding another Earth, another world that can support life or already teeming with it (and hopefully, without the many problems besetting mankind).

According to records, the first discovery of an extrasolar planet orbiting a normal star was made in 1995. A mammoth gas giant was reported to be very close to its star, nearer than Mercury is to the sun, so life could not possibly start there. Since then, the number of newly discovered worlds swelled to about 200. But they are just dead, lifeless bodies filled with radiation and orbiting dead stars. Some of these planets are drifting alone in space while many others are orbiting dual-star or even triple-star systems.

The astronomers in their dogged search for life in space found an amazing variety of worlds that are either water planets or blistering gas orbs. Their calculated ages range from the very young of about 1 million years to the very ancient of more than 13 billion years old. Most of the discoveries so far have been big, cheerless disappointments.

Then Gliese 581 C came into the view and mankind as a whole has had reason to celebrate. After all, we may have breathing, reasoning neighbors across the mind-boggling distances between stars. The recent discovery in a sense, doesn't promise much, but it offered a ray of hope that there could be other Earths out there.

Gliese 581 C is the first planet so far to have passed the tight requirements for harboring life. There is wide consensus among the team of astronomers and scientists that Gliese 581 C holds water and has a protective atmosphere, although, they are waiting for the right opportunity to make further studies of the distant planet to learn if there is life giving oxygen and to calculate its diameter.

If off-Earth life exists elsewhere beyond our sun's sphere of influence, Mayor predicts that it might take about two decades for top researchers to detect their presence.

Currently, the cosmic hunters are using the major methods of wobble technique, transit system and gravitational microlensing in scanning the vastness of space for faint signs of promising planets.

The wobble technique utilizes a radial velocity instrument whereby astronomers are able to detect slight variations in a particular star's motion that may be caused by the gravitational pull of its orbiting satellites or planets.

The transit method is used when a certain planet passes between the Earth and its parent star. In passing, it should block some of the starlight that reaches Earth and the scientists use the slight dip in deducing the planet's size. A foreground star having planets of its own can also be studied by the way it bends or increases the light from a background star. This is the microlensing method used by the scientists.

With these glad tidings, human governments might as well work and pool resources together in developing new technology to fast-track future space research and exploration. Extraterrestrial beings should be out there, within reach and waiting for us all too worldly Earthlings to acknowledge their intelligent presence.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Alex Argote

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