Astrobiology Top 10: Discovery of Habitable Alien World?

First Potentially Habitable Exoplanet Found
Based on a NASA news release

The W. M. Keck Observatory operates two 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai’i and is a scientific partnership of the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and NASA. Credit: Pablo McLoud/WMKO

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.”

This discovery was the result of more than a decade of observations using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, one of the world’s largest optical telescopes. The research, sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation, placed the planet in an area where liquid water could exist on the planet’s surface. If confirmed, this would be the most Earth-like exoplanet yet discovered and the first strong case for a potentially habitable one.

To astronomers, a “potentially habitable” planet is one that could sustain life, not necessarily one where humans would thrive.  Habitability depends on many factors, but having liquid water and an atmosphere are among the most important.

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.

The spectrometer allows precise measurements of a star’s radial velocity (its motion along the line of sight from Earth), which can reveal the presence of planets. The gravitational tug of an orbiting planet causes periodic changes in the radial velocity of the host star. Multiple planets induce complex wobbles in the star’s motion, and astronomers use sophisticated analyses to detect planets and determine their orbits and masses.

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.”

Earth is the only planet in our solar system that lies within the habitable zone. Credit: NASA

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

“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”).

Doubt Cast on Existence of Habitable Alien World
By Leslie Mullen

Last month, astronomers announced the discovery of the first potentially habitable extrasolar planet. But this week at an International Astronomical Union meeting, doubts were raised about the existence of this exciting new planet said to be orbiting the star Gliese 581.

Called ‘Gliese 581 g,’ the planet was determined to be about 3 times the mass of Earth, meaning it was a rocky world, not a gas giant like Jupiter. Rocky extrasolar planets have been found before, but the unique trait about this planet was that it orbited within the red dwarf star’s habitable zone, that region of space where temperatures are sufficient for water to remain as a liquid on a planetary surface.

Gliese 581 g is thought to have three times the mass of Earth, and to orbit in the middle of its star’s habitable zone, meaning liquid water could exist on the planet’s surface.
Credit: Lynette Cook

Astrobiologists were thrilled at the news, since liquid water is considered necessary for the origin and evolution of life. In fact, NASA has made it a primary aim to ‘follow the water’ in the search for life elsewhere in the galaxy.

The star Gliese 581 is 20 light years away from Earth, located in the constellation Libra. 

“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,” said Steven Vogt in a press release announcing the discovery.

Vogt is one of the lead astronomers of the Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey, and lead author on the paper published in the Astrophysical Journal (and posted online at the web site.)  The paper also announced the discovery of planet ‘f’, a 7-Earth mass planet with a 433-day orbit around Gliese 581.

Planet ‘g’ was calculated to have an orbital period of only 37 days. Although an extremely close orbit by the standards of our own solar system, because Gliese 581 is not as luminous as our sun its habitable zone must be much closer in.

Because the planet orbits so close to its star, astronomers said it must be tidally locked, with the same side of the planet always facing the star. This would mean that the star-side of the planet would be much hotter than the perpetually dark side, but a more temperate region could exist in the border zone between the dark and light sides.

To find the planet, the Lick-Carnegie team looked at 122 radial velocity measurements from the HIRES instrument on the Keck I telescope at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. They also used 119 measurements from the HARPS instrument on the La Silla telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile.

The HIRES measurements were taken over a period of 11 years, while the HARPS measurements were made over 4 years.

Planet’s Existence Not Confirmed

Astronomers have discovered many planets orbiting the star Gliese 581. This artist’s representation shows Gliese 581 e (foreground), which is only about twice the mass of our Earth. Other confirmed planets in the system are 16 (planet b, nearest to the star), 5 (planet c, center), and 7 Earth-masses (planet d, with the bluish color).
Credit: ESO

Francesco Pepe, an astronomer who works on HARPS data at the Geneva Observatory, said at the IAU meeting this week that his team could not confirm the existence of Gliese 581 g. In email correspondence with Astrobiology Magazine, Pepe said that they could not confirm the existence of planet ‘f’ either.

The Geneva team, led by Michel Mayor, announced in 2009 the discovery of planet ‘e’ in the Gliese 581 solar system. At approximately 1.9 Earth masses, this ‘e’ planet is the lowest mass extrasolar planet yet found, and has a 3.15-day orbital period around the star.

“Since Mayor’s announcement in 2009 of the lowest-mass planet Gliese 581 e, we have gathered about 60 additional data points with the HARPS instrument for a total of 180 data points spanning 6.5 years of observations,” said Pepe. “From these data, we easily recover the 4 previously announced planets b, c, d, and e.”

However, he said they do not see any evidence for planet ‘g’, the fifth planet in the system as announced by Vogt and his team.

“The reason for that is that, despite the extreme accuracy of the instrument and the many data points, the signal amplitude of this potential fifth planet is very low and basically at the level of the measurement noise,” said Pepe.

The planets in the Gliese 581 system were discovered using spectroscopic radial velocity measurements. Planets ‘tug’ on the star they orbit, causing it to shift in position (stars and planets actually orbit a common center of mass). By measuring the star’s movement in the sky, astronomers can figure out what sort of planets are orbiting it. Multi-planet systems create a complicated signal, and astronomers must tease out the spectral lines to figure out what represents a planet, and what is just “noise” – shifts in the star light not caused by an orbiting planet. Astronomers have developed various ways to reduce such noise in their telescopic observations, but it still creates a level of uncertainty in detecting extrasolar planets.

Two bodies with a major difference in mass – a star and a planet — orbit around a common center of mass, or ‘barycenter’ (defined in this animation by the red cross). Astronomers look at the Doppler shift of light as the star moves back and forth, but additional orbiting planets can create a very complicated signal.
Credit: Zhatt

The Geneva team plugged the HARPS data on Gliese 581 into computer models to check on the odds the signal was the result of noise, rather than evidence of the habitable planet ‘g’ as claimed by the Lick-Carnegie team.

“Simulations on the real data have shown that the probability that such a signal is just produced ‘by chance’ out of the noise is not negligible, of the order of several percents,” Pepe said. “Under these conditions we cannot confirm the presence of the announced planet Gliese 581 g.”

Pepe noted that while he did not speak at the IAU meeting about Gliese 581 f, the other potential planet in this system announced by the Lick-Carnegie team, the HARPS data calls that planet into question as well.

“We haven’t made a detailed analysis yet, but at first glance no statistically significant signal [for planet f] is emerging from our data set,” he said.

Gliese 581 is already one of the most intriguing solar systems known, with four planets confirmed orbiting the star. The addition of the potentially habitable planet ‘g’ would make the system the go-to place in the search for alien life, but more work needs to be done to either confirm or refute the planet’s existence.

"I would say the detection was less than comfortably secure, even in the original Vogt et al. paper — the paper was carefully worded, as opposed to what was in some media reports," said Ray Jayawardhana, a University of Toronto astronomer who was not involved in either study. "Of course, it’s not easy to definitively rule out something, but the HARPS evidence is at least raising some doubts."