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Discovery of Three New Super-Earths Reminds Us How Small We Are

Discovery of Three New Super-Earths Reminds Us How Small We Are

It’s an exciting time to be a planetary scientist. Not only are we sending nuclear robots to Mars, checking out truly alien worlds in our backyard and pushing the outer limits of the solar system, but we are for the first time getting a glimpse at the number of potentially habitable planets.

Last month, astronomers announced that three Earth-like planets were found around star Gliese 667C, part of the Gliese 667 triple star system. Well, Earth-like might be a bit of a misnomer. The newly discovered planets appear to be rocky or watery, but are between four and eight times the mass of the Earth, a fact that earned them their title: Super-Earths. What is significant about these planets is that they are in their star’s habitable zone, which is basically the space in the orbit of a star where a planet can support liquid water.

We’ve been finding more and more of these extrasolar planets lately, thanks in large part to the now dead Kepler space observatory, which as of last month had discovered over 3,200 candidates for alien worlds. Kepler finds these planets by looking for transits, which is when a planet passes in front of the star. When a transit occurs, the brightness of the star goes down a tiny bit. Kepler measures those decreases, and when it finds one, voila: we have a possible alien planet.

However, these three new extoplanets were found using a different method. The method the researchers used is called the radial velocity method. Using this method, researchers look for the star to wobble slightly because, if a planet is there, its gravity will effect the star.

This is exciting stuff, but when we talk about potentially habitable planets, we need to put a big emphasis on “potential.” We don’t really know anything about these planets other than they exist and are rocky. We don’t know what the atmospheres of these planets are composed of. Frankly, we don’t even know what kind of life to look for. We know what has worked on Earth. We know that everything here needs water to survive. But one data point does not a trend make. It could be that any liquid would do. We have ideas, but we don’t know anything for sure.

I don’t mean to rain on the parade. Planetary scientists are doing amazing work. For thousands of years we thought that we — humans, Earthlings — held a special place in the universe. For a long time, we basically thought we were the universe. We know now that we aren’t.

Our planet, other than it being the only planet that we know of with life on it, is unspectacular. We’ve found dozens of rocky worlds similar to Earth; there are three in this Gliese system alone. But you know what is spectacular? We can sit on our tiny planet and see planets dozens and hundreds of light years away using methods we’ve developed with our big brains and ingenuity.

For me, that’s the takeaway from this. Sure, we’re narrowing down the areas at which we can look for potential life, which if we find it has the potential to change everything. But there is also a poetic beauty to this whole endeavor outside of the science.

Whenever I hear about the discovery of a new planet, I feel incredibly special and painfully insignificant, all at the same time — special because I am a member of a species that, through a quirk of chemistry millions of years ago, has managed to break free from the Earth’s surface to explore new worlds; insignificant because, with every new planet found, I realize a little more vividly how big the universe is compared to everything I love. It’s an exhilarating feeling. It intensifies the feeling of being alive and human and I look forward to more opportunities to feel that way.

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Photo Credit: European Southern Observatory

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112 comments

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11:39AM PDT on Oct 15, 2013

Mark D. I doubt that the destructive capitalists are the majority of humans. Most humans are just ignorant and don't pay enough attention to what is going on around them--rather than mean-spirited beings who go out of their way to cause harm.

7:52PM PDT on Sep 9, 2013

Humans will never get to other stars, trillions of trillions of miles from earth.. human technology is too primitive and humans are too savage and insane a species to even get close to organizing such advanced things. Humans will go extinct on earth. And the universe will undoubtedly have a party when that happens. All the plants and animals everywhere in the universe know instinctively what a nightmare the human race is, and how lucky they are that the human disease is quarantined just to earth. (admittedly a small percent of humans are aware and constructive but they are overwhelmed by the majority of insane humanity) I really hope earth survives the human disease.

5:05PM PDT on Aug 3, 2013

I don't think humans have realized how fortunate we are to have this amazing planet.....

8:11AM PDT on Jul 27, 2013

Well if they're habitable, they probably already are and they most likely would not appreciate us dropping by, so how's about we just become way better stewards of our own planet.

12:40PM PDT on Jul 23, 2013

@Barbara V.: I agree!

4:23AM PDT on Jul 23, 2013

Tks

8:27PM PDT on Jul 22, 2013

I don't have a doubt in the world that there are zillions of planets out there. There certainly are zillions of galaxies! So of course, there'll be habitable planets here and there--although I'm sure proof can only be seen best in our galaxy. However, considering the way of earthlings, it would be better to straighten out the mess we've made on THIS planet rather than worry about planets "out there." I'll bet you dollars to donuts that if we went to another planet, we'd ruin that one like we've all but ruined this one.

12:31PM PDT on Jul 21, 2013

You're welcome, Lilliana!

8:12AM PDT on Jul 21, 2013

Terra is still my favourite

6:00AM PDT on Jul 21, 2013

Thanks.

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