Report of Earth-like Planet Raising New Doubts

Artist rendering provided by Lynette Cook, National Science Foundation, shows a new planet, right. Astronomers have found a planet that is in the Goldilocks zone _ just right for life. Not too hot, not too cold. Not too far from its sun, not too close. And it is near Earth _ relatively speaking, at 120 trillion miles. It also makes scientists think that these examples of habitable planets are far more common than they thought. (AP Photo/Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation) CBS

A group of Swiss astronomers announced yesterday at the International Astronomical Union's annual meeting in Turin, Italy, that they couldn't detect the "goldilocks" exoplanet found by U.S. researchers a few weeks ago. That news of that planet, dubbed Gliese 581g, generated much excitement, since researchers said it was only three times the size of Earth, and it appeared to lie in the habitable zone where liquid water could exist on the surface.

It didn't take long for some cold water to be thrown on the astronomical community and the space-loving public. Presenter Francesco Pepe and his colleagues claim that it will be years before the data is clear enough to see such a planet.

"We do not see any evidence for a fifth planet … as announced by Vogt et al.," Pepe wrote Science in an e-mail from the meeting. On the other hand, "we can't prove there is no fifth planet." No one yet has the required precision in their observations to prove the absence of such a small exoplanet, he notes.

Such small planets are very hard to find. Astronomers discover these planets by calculating how they interact with the star they orbit, making it wiggle ever so slightly. The American team that identified the planet a few weeks ago saw the wiggles when analyzing a combination of two sets of data. Astronomer Paul Butler, a member of the U.S. team who is at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., says he can't comment on the Swiss work because he wasn't at the meeting and the data are unpublished. He notes, however, that more observations will likely be needed to solidify the existence of Gliese 581g. "I would expect that on the time scale of a year or two this should be settled."

There will be more information available when the Swiss team releases its data and methods, but for now you might want to unpack your bags.

By Jennifer Welsh
Reprinted with permission from Discover

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