Astronomers have discovered a planet residing in the constellation Ophiucus, which is Greek for “Snake holder.” The planet’s surface is primarily water, but it is suspected to have a silicon and iron core. This wouldn’t be terribly significant, except the planet itself seems to be a likely candidate for life, and is more like Earth than anything discovered yet. Could this discovery finally be the one that changes our understanding of life elsewhere in the galaxy forever?
The planet, GJ 1214b, orbits a red dwarf sun, much cooler and smaller than our own. GJ 1214b’s sun is far less intense than Earth’s sun, Sol. As a result, the so called, “Goldilocks Zone,” which planets can reside within can be much closer to the star. The Goldilocks zone is a term used by scientists to describe the region around ever star where a planet could reside where temperatures could be not too hot and not too cold for life to exist within. The Earth resides in a goldilocks zone where the temperatures remain a constant temperature where life can exist without problem over most of its surface. Deviation from this zone even slightly results in difficulty for life to form. At least that’s how it’s been observed so far. In truth, there is no way to tell if the goldilocks zone is a universal truth, or if it’s simply used as a way for us to measure life as we understand it on our own planet.
Scientists have been surprised time and time again by what can survive in even the most hostile conditions. Creatures known as extremophiles exist on Earth capable of living near magma flows, the deep sea under high pressure, in highly radioactive locations, and any number of other places. One creature dubbed Strain 121 is able to survive high temperatures in an autoclave, and even thrives in higher temperatures. At 121 degrees it is able to double its population over the course of 24 hours. It should be of considerable interest, then, that such temperatures do exist on the surface of GJ 1214b. And if it can survive on Earth in such extreme conditions, could such life survive also on this alien world? It seems likely. Measurements performed on the planet suggest a thick atmosphere comprised primarily of hydrogen and the most common element in the galaxy, Helium. As a result most visible light is blocked to the surface. As a result any life existing on the surface would depend on alternate sensory organs, likely focusing on a form of sonar to communicate and sense the presence of others.
The planet was discovered shortly after the MEarth project was initiated where astronomers began to focus their telescopes on M-dwarfs (more commonly known as red dwarfs). The results have been astronomically telling. If such a planet were to be discovered so quickly, it stands to reason that in the future other planets will be discovered just as easily. What scientists are hoping for now is a planet with conditions almost exactly like Earth to settle the argument once and for all about life elsewhere in the universe. It should also be noted that these discoveries were made with amateur level telescopes and that Earth has only a limited view of the galaxy’s night sky. There’s no telling what could be discovered if the vantage point was from elsewhere in the galaxy.