|The planet orbits Gliese 581 at the perfect distance for potential life to develop [National Science Foundation]|
A team of planet hunters led by astronomers at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UC Santa Cruz), and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA, has announced the discovery of an Earth-sized planet (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," 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.
"This is clearly one of the most exciting areas of science these days" said Ed Seidel, assistant director for NSF's Mathematical and Physical Sciences directorate. "If we do discover life outside our planet, it would perhaps be the most significant discovery of all time."
To astronomers, a "potentially habitable" planet is one that could sustain life, not necessarily one that humans would consider a nice place to live. Habitability depends on many factors, but liquid water and an atmosphere are among the most important.
"Our findings offer a very compelling case for a potentially habitable planet," said Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. "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."
"With modern techniques, it is now possible to actually search for worlds that might be able to support life as we understand it," added Seidel. "Just a few years back I wouldn't have thought this could have advanced so fast."
This discovery was the result of over a decade of observations on the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. "Advanced techniques combined with old-fashioned ground-based telescopes continue to lead the exoplanet revolution," said Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution. "Our ability to find potentially habitable worlds is now limited only by our telescope time."