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Gliese 581c: Has “Planet Possible” Been Found In The Search For ET?

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The question of whether or not we are alone in the universe — certainly one of the most profound which has ever perplexed mankind — may have been answered.

A number of news sources are reporting that a team of European astronomers have discovered a planet located about twenty light years away from Earth, with potentially life sustaining qualities remarkably similar to our own planet. The planet, currently being called Gliese 581c is named for its close proximity to its "sun" — the red dwarf star Gliese 581. It is roughly one and a half times the size of earth, measuring about 12,000 miles across compared to our own 8,000.

Gliese 581c's surface is also believed to be solid. Like Earth, it is most likely covered with both rock and water, rather than an ice-based or gaseous surface. It has a mass five times the size of earth, giving it enough gravity to maintain a stable atmosphere. The planet is also most importantly believed to maintain temperatures between 32 and 104 degrees. These properties — among the most basic elements necessary to sustain life as we know it — have led to some reports labeling Gliese 581c as the "New Earth".

If life does indeed exist on Gliese 581c however, its inhabitants would have to deal with a few drawbacks. Parent sun Gliese 581 is only about one third the size of our own, and is 50 times cooler. However, it is also considerably closer, orbiting at about six million miles away (compared to our larger sun at 93 million miles away). This would make for a spectacular Glieseian sunset dominated by the huge red star appearing some twenty times the size of our sun. However it would also mean greater solar radiation and higher geologic instability due to the gravitational tides from the nearby sun.

Still, you can't help but marvel at the possibilities. While there have been many exciting discoveries made within our own solar system over the past few decades — such as bacteria on Mars and possible water on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn — this is the first time a planet so similar to Earth has been discovered outside our own immediate neighborhood. It's relatively close proximity of 120 trillion miles — or about 20 light years away — also gives projects like SETI (The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) a prime target at which to point its equipment searching for alien radio signals.

"On the treasure map of the Universe, one would be tempted to mark this planet with an X," said Xavier Delfosse, one of the scientists who discovered the planet. The discovery of the first planet outside our solar system so much like Earth, with so many of the same life sustaining properties, at the very least both provokes a sense of wonder and the awe of possibility.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Ray Ellis

    Red sun, heavier gravity. . . could we have found–dare I say it?–Krypton?

    Seriously, good article!

  • Glen Boyd

    Well Ray, if there isn’t a Superman there maybe we could at least find the next cosmic rock star. Elvis Centauri anyone?

    Sorry couldn’t resist…


  • Christopher Rose

    Glen, the fact that this newly discovered planet probably has water doesn’t have anything to do with whether we are alone in the universe. I’m not aware of any respectable scientific sources suggesting this planet, with it’s 13 day long year, actually has intelligent life!

    Statistically, it’s highly probable that there is intelligent life out there somewhere but it’s going to be a very long time indeed before we humans have the ability to mount meaningful expeditions to discover or meet it. Our best hope is that some smarter and benign species decides to come and visit us. Can’t happen soon enough for me!

  • Glen Boyd

    Some folks believe we already have Christopher. Been visited by them, that is. Thanx for the comment.


  • Dr Dreadful

    1. If we do (somehow) confirm the presence of life on Gliese 581c, the implications are profound. I mean, the very first Earthlike extrasolar planet we identify – probably one of billions – and it just happens to have life on it?! Statistically, that would make life absurdly commonplace in our galaxy.

    So if that’s the case… why’s everyone keeping so quiet?

    2. Bacteria on Mars: the jury’s still very much out on that one. The fossils in that Antarctic meteorite may very well not be organic at all. Even if they are, there’s no reason to suppose they didn’t originate right here on Earth.

  • Glen Boyd

    Dr. Dreadful,

    The key here is that the possiblity of life remains a big “if”. But the very possibility posed by the discovery with so many earth like qualities is cause for excitement in my view. But I do realize there are many, many such “ifs” involved.

    I will say this though, if everything being theorized about Gliese 581c does turn out to be true — from climate and temperature to surface conditions and water — I would be very surprised if there wasn’t at least some form of life there. I would be equally surprised to find that if that were true — and there goes that “if” factor again — that there were NOT in fact, billions of other worlds out there like it.

    When all of these conditions are actually met, I think the mathematical odds against some form of life become greatly reduced.

    Great screen name by the way.


    P.S. (the “real” one)

  • STM

    Chris: This planet is in the so-called Goldilocks Zone, and the only one found so far in that category … meaning that its distance from its sun gives it the same kind of temperatures found on Earth. The fact that it has a 13-day year is irrelevent. The important thing is that it’s in this zone, and if it has water, it likely has life of some description. The shortness of its year just means it’s summer, winter, spring and autumn all the time. Well, a different one every three days in Earth time.

    A bit like Melbourne.

  • STM

    And I reckon the Gliesians, looking for a new home as their planet falls victim to the intense solar radiation of a slowly expanding and cooling red dwarf, have probably answered the call of the SETI astronomers, and are currently heading this way.

    Possibly, they have also modelled themselves on Americans, but with suntans, which should be interesting once they touch down. “Hey dudes! It’s us!”

  • Glen Boyd

    A bit like Melbourne…

    Actually a LOT like Seattle. We get all four seasons in a single day here on a very regular basis.

    Come get some, Gliesians.


  • Christopher Rose

    Wouldn’t the fact that Gliese581c is bigger than the Earth and rotating every 13 days mean that it is spinning really really fast? Makes me feel dizzy just thinking about it.

    Might be great for making cocktails but would it be a peaceful enough environment to provide the comparitively stable conditions needed for complex life to evolve?

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    “Wouldn’t the fact that Gliese 581c is bigger than the Earth and rotating every 13 days mean that it is spinning really really fast? Makes me feel dizzy just thinking about it.”

    Chris, it makes you dizzy because you are used to a year that is 26 times longer. Whatever proteins may have evolved into life on Gliese 581c would have evolved with this 13 day year hardwired into their system. We would be slow and eternal compared to them. Another matter of “relativity.”

  • duane

    Whether ot not there are seasons depends on the tilt of a planet with respect to the plane of its orbit — 3.25 day seasons? Unless the atmosphere is very thin, there will be one season — all the time — like Los Angeles. Oh, wait, even LA has two seasons, Smog and not-Smog. What matters more to the Gliesens is the length of the day, not the year.

  • Dr Dreadful

    “A bit like Melbourne…”

    STM, that made me laugh. I visited Melbourne for three days a couple of years ago and recall regular and enthusiastic helpings of sun, torrential rain, high winds and hail, all served up within the space of about two hours. AND I only spent about one of those three days actually in the city, being away on tours the rest of the time.

    A great city despite it all.

  • STM

    “I visited Melbourne for three days a couple of years ago”

    Bleak City.

    Home of the philistine, heathen great unwashed, haters of the wonderful game of rugby and lovers of that abomination known as Australian Football, played by girly men in fetching sleeveless tops similar to those favoured by my youngest daughter.

    The inhabitants of which are known up here, of course, as “Mexicans” (south of the border).

    How’d on Earth did you manage to last three days Doc? It’s a snore-a-thon down there. You deserve a bloody medal.

  • Dr Dreadful


    Bloody hell mate, take a breath. I didn’t realize the human face was capable of turning that particular shade of purple.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but something tells me – I don’t know what exactly – you’re a Sydneysider…?

  • Dr Dreadful

    How’d on Earth did you manage to last three days Doc? It’s a snore-a-thon down there. You deserve a bloody medal.

    Why thank you. I happily accept. And if that nice Mr Howard should care to pin it on me personally, I’ll endeavour not to throw up on his shoes.

    From the POV of the foreign visitor Melbourne doesn’t hold a candle to Sydney, of course, but it did endear itself to me forever because virtually the first thing I saw on leaving my hotel was a genuine kebab shop! Imagine how this Londoner, after three years of American exile thousands of miles from a decent kebab, felt a flood of warmth in his heart on seeing that vision.

    Ahem. Back to Gliese 581c, before Glen gives us a slap.

  • STM

    Lol. Sydneysider it is. Ah yes … 10 pints (or 15 schooners) followed by a kebab with garlic sauce, whilst doing a 3AM crash course in swahili and yodelling and a great passing impersonation of a human pinball mated to a crab that’s taken a facial knock.

    Always worth it though, even after the gobful from the missus. The sauce also keeps her away for a few hours the next day, too, so it’s always worth asking for extra.

    Wonder what the Gliesians will think when they see Earthlings out on the squirt and men sleeping on couches?

  • Dr Dreadful

    Wonder what the Gliesians will think when they see Earthlings out on the squirt and men sleeping on couches?

    Since Earth is so much further away from its star than Gliese 581c, the Gliesians will probably think the two celestial bodies had a row and the Sun made Earth go and sleep on the couch.

  • STM

    Or maybe it was the kebabs

  • Douglas Mays

    Look, I don’t know what the big deal is. This whole thing about ‘is there life out there?’ There are probably a zillion life forms out there that are not like humans and animals and plants. There could be a whole culture of gases (or whatever) out there.

    Anyway, my whole deal on the subject is that mankind is so arrogant for even thinking that we are the only ones out here in this massive universe.

    Who cares? UFOs, some form of life on other planets, yet to be discovered? So what? No big deal. I have always figured there could be something out there.

    Is this part of the ‘what is the answer to the big question?’ deal which has done a great job of screwing up society with religious wars and all that stuff.

    The answer is 42. It all has been figured out.

  • Douglas Mays

    Oh, don’t get me wrong. The search and discovery for life elsewhere in the universe is amazing. My point is that we should not read too much into it (holy war stuff, etc.) when we should just simply think of it like discovering a new species here on earth.

    Be one with the universe…..


  • Dr Dreadful

    The answer is 42. It all has been figured out.

    I’m well aware of that, but the problem is that no-one knows what the actual question is.

    I suggest a nice soothing game of Brockian ultra cricket before we all go nuts thinking about it.

  • ms. green

    Maybe since we’ve almost killed this planet we can all move there – Gliese 581c then keep moving until we’ve wiped out the whole galaxy!

  • Dr Dreadful

    At the rate we’re going, the Universe will have died a heat death or recollapsed by the time we’ve got even a fraction of the way through even our own galaxy.

  • Glen Boyd

    Now there’s an optimistic world view. No wonder they call you Dr. Dreadful.


  • Xchel uut uut

    What will Glieseians think of Earthling? ask them yourself! at URL! more or less is like this: potential to become no longer asylum basket case, yesss good news earthlings!

  • m/bone

    this could become the greatest discovery ever especially if any form of life is found on the planet hopefully in our lifetime (within next 50-70 years) someone will find out

  • geezy

    all yall lik azz