The long search for a planet that could sustain life is finally officially over as European scientists gathered to announce that the distant planet was indeed habitable. Normally news like this would be of such intense interest as to make headlines, but with public interest on more terrestrial matters it may be some time before the rest of the world catches on that an important step in astrobiology has just been taken. We may be looking a planet with alien life straight in the face. And now it’s official.
Gliese 581d was discovered 20 light years away from our own sun in the constellation Libra. The planet, which navigates around its parent star Gliese 581 was one of several planets discovered in 2007 by scientists at the European Southern Observatory with a 3.6 meter telescope. After concluding that the planet may be within the Goldilocks zone of the planet, a long time debate began about whether it may or may not in fact be habitable. And now that debate has concluded in an official capacity as scientists finally come to the conclusion that it is indeed habitable for life.
Of course habitable for life and habitable for human life are two completely different things. While we may find the planet teeming with alien biology, the likelihood of it actually sustaining humans who landed on the surface may be a little more difficult. Humans require an oxygen rich atmosphere in order to survive, and the planet Gliese 581d would have a carbon dioxide rich atmosphere. But water would not be a problem – as scientists concluded the planet would likely have a water rich environment on the surface. And as they conducted climate simulations of the surface, all facts point to a likely stable atmosphere complete with rain and other weather phenomena.
But there would be problems as well. An atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide would make inhabiting Gliese 581d difficult without some form of weather modification. Still, plants or algae used to carbon dioxide rich environments would find the planet quite sustainable if they could grow in conditions where the planet’s gravity was equivalent to twice that of Earth’s gravity. Experiments to test this could begin in theory fairly soon however, if a space based platform were made to rotate quickly and give off a comparable G force equivalent to twice Earth’s gravity while different plant species were tested. But whether humans would be able to survive in this environment may be a different matter altogether.
Are we looking at the dawn of a new age in space travel where a distant planet may become home to millions on Earth? Will Gliese become the first sustainable planet to allow colonists to one day live? Gliese is promising, but whether or not it will actually host life as we know it or an exciting new form will have to be determined by scientists as they continue to scrutinize this exciting new planet. And in the mean time it seems the human race’s search for life outside of the boundaries of our solar system may be approaching a promising conclusion.