First Potentially Habitable Exoplanet Found
A team of planet hunters from the University of California (UC) Santa Cruz, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington has announced the discovery of a planet with three times the mass of Earth orbiting a nearby star at a distance that places it squarely in the middle of the star’s “habitable zone.”
The new findings are based on 11 years of observations of the nearby red dwarf star Gliese 581 using the HIRES spectrometer on the Keck I Telescope.
“Keck’s long-term observations of the wobble of nearby stars enabled the detection of this multi-planetary system,” said Mario R. Perez, Keck program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Keck is once again proving itself an amazing tool for scientific research.”
Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, and Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution lead the Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey. The team’s new findings are reported in a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal and posted online at http://arxiv.org.
“Our findings offer a very compelling case for a potentially habitable planet,” said Vogt. “The fact that we were able to detect this planet so quickly and so nearby tells us that planets like this must be really common.”
The paper reports the discovery of two new planets around Gliese 581. This brings the total number of known planets around this star to six, the most yet discovered in a planetary system outside of our own.
Like our solar system, the planets around Gliese 581 have nearly-circular orbits. The new planet designated Gliese 581g has a mass three to four times that of Earth and orbits its star in just under 37 days. Its mass indicates that it is probably a rocky planet with a definite surface and enough gravity to hold on to an atmosphere.
Gliese 581, located 20 light years away from Earth in the constellation Libra, has two previously detected planets that lie at the edges of the habitable zone, one on the hot side (planet c) and one on the cold side (planet d). While some astronomers still think planet d may be habitable if it has a thick atmosphere with a strong greenhouse effect to warm it up, others are skeptical.
The newly-discovered planet g, however, lies right in the middle of the habitable zone. The planet is tidally locked to the star, meaning that one side is always facing the star and basking in perpetual daylight, while the side facing away from the star is in perpetual darkness. One effect of this is to stabilize the planet’s surface climates, according to Vogt. The most habitable zone on the planet’s surface would be the line between shadow and light (known as the “terminator”).