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Exoplanet Gliese 581-c: Creepycrawlies and cabbage-heads

Scientists have discovered a second “super Earth” in our Galaxy. The planet could be inhabitable, home to water and life. Do we have a chance to find out the truth about it? And: what would these living things like in this new world?

Planet Gliese 581-c in the glow of its star (Type M, Red Dwarf with the other two planets in the small solar system)
Picture by ESO

News spread a few days ago like wildfire among astronomers and alien followers: Not far from our own Earth in the Libra constellation, there is a "sun" (Type Red dwarf, M), around which three planets orbit. The conditions on one of these planets are so good that a temperature of around 0 to 40 degrees Celsius prevails on its surface. If water and an atmosphere could just be proved, according to many experts, it would be possible for life to have developed there.

The silly thing is this: "Earth II" is but an a cat’s leap away in astronomical dimensions, yet 20.5 light years are still an eternity with today’s means of transport. With a few planet tricks you could accelerate a spacecraft or a probe into space at around 20 kilometres per second – that is 72,000 km/h. Then the journey to "Gliese 581-c" would still take 307,000 years. Without beams, we would probably not hear the likes of: "Let’s go for some aliens!"

How then are the scientists going to find out if something is scrimmaging there? Professor Werner Weiss from the Astronomical Institute at the University of Vienna in an interview: "With a lot of luck and patience, we could find the fingerprint of water in the light spectra which have reached us from Gliese 581, if it is available to us. Perhaps even from substances like nitrogen, methane or sulphur, which are unmistakable signs of life on our planet Earth. But the existence of possible living things cannot be directly proven".

This means that we have to speculate a little as to how life on Gliese-581 could look: one year on the planet lasts just 13 days. In this short time, it orbits its star just once. (Our Earth takes 365 days and 6 hours.) Gliese 581-c is five times as heavy as Earth and probably one and a half times as big. If life similar to that of our Earth were actually to be discovered on its surface, it is not completely clear at which stage it is, because we do not know when it began: would we come across simple micro-organisms and single cells like in the life and blood of our planet or upon beings, compared with which we humans would appear to be primitive amoeba?

A question of timing, since if "precocious" extra-terrestrials had stumbled across us 2 billion years ago, they would probably have been disappointed, turned around and said: "Let’s have another look – say – in another 3 billion years time, maybe then something will have become of these bacteria..."

The European space telescope Corot should discover planets similar to the Earth
Picture by CNES/Ducros

If "Gliesians" were as developed as us Earthlings, then creepycrawlies and cabbage-heads would shuffle around on the planet, which would have to grow against a pull of 4- to 5-times the weight of gravity. Birds and high trees would have difficulties, and we humans would probably crawl over the ground on our stomachs with huge muscles.

Back to serious scientific research then: Even Austria is actively participating in the search for inhabitable "Earth-twins" in outer space. On board the European satellite telescope "Corot", which has been looking for such exoplanets since December 2006 in an orbit through reflected metres, there is a computer system for image processing "made in Austria" and on the roof of the Viennese Astronomical Institute there is a three-metre high dish antenna, which maintains contact with the new space telescope via one of four worldwide geostations.

Professor Weiss, chairman of the task force: "The apparatus is so exact that we would notice a change in light caused by a mosquito flying over the giant floodlit facilities of a football stadium.

Just like when a tiny planet like Earth whirrs past the "spotlight" of the sun...

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© A report by Tobias Micke (13-05-07) – Contact