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The new Earth: Why you will never live there

September 30, 2010

Cathal Kelly


This artist rendering shows a new planet, right. Astronomers have found a planet that is in the Goldilocks zone — just right for life. And it is near Earth — relatively speaking, at 190 trillion kilometres.


Before you start using aerosol hairspray, let’s try and figure out if anyone can actually live on Gliese 581g.

Here’s the first problem with the new, potentially habitable Earth-like planet just discovered by astronomers. The name. No one’s going to schlep all their stuff to a place called Gliese 581g. Before that sinks in, we need to change the name to something catchier – like “Mars.”

Gliese 581g is about three times the mass of Earth. It’s closer to its star than we are to the sun, but its star is a slow-burning red dwarf, so it’s unlikely we’d be cooked right off it. It sits in what astronomers called the “Goldilocks Zone” of the galaxy – the place where conditions are just right to ensure a supply of liquid water.

We can think of Gliese 581g as our special nest egg, our survival back-up plan. Once we ruin this planet (and rest assured, that’s as good as done), we now have a destination in mind. This is about as likely as you saying, “Once I’ve totally trashed my mom’s basement, I’ll move into Buckingham Palace,” but dreams are important.

However, it’s also important that we understand the sacrifices we’ll be making on Gliese 581g. You’re going to have to give up certain things in order to breathe the (possibly deadly) fresh air. Here they are:

• Your current life: Gliese is 20 light years away. That’s about 190,000,000,000,000 km. That’s a lot.

The fastest man-made object is the Helios 2 space probe, which can travel at 250,000 km/h. The upshot – it’s going to take 87,000 years to get there. So you won’t be moving planets, although if you’re super-talented, some form of DNA goo that resembles you might make it there in a petri dish.

• Jogging: Gravity is a crap-shoot on Gliese. But in all likelihood, once you leave the house, you will either be crushed as flat as a crepe or go spinning off into the ether. Neither of which is much of an aerobic workout.

• Skin: Like the moon, Gliese always shows the same face to its star. So one side is bathed in light – and likely baking hot – while the other side is swathed in darkness – and likely freezing.

Either way, your epidermis is not going to cut it. So prepare to start every day with some variation on this ritual.

• The novelty of your birthday: Gliese rotates once every 37 days – which means “hump day” on Gliese is going to last longer than July.

Coincidentally, that’s also as long as it takes Gliese to orbit its star. So one year is also 37 days. That means it’ll be your birthday every day at 3:30 p.m. And no, you don’t get to take your birthday day off.

The next time you spot an oil slick, resist the urge to light it on fire, no matter how much fun that seems like. Sounds like we’re going to need our beater of a homeworld for a little while yet.

Or will we?

“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,” said one of Gliese 581g’s discoverers, astrophysicist Steven Vogt.

Whew. Awesome news. No need to rush. So. How long were they looking before they spotted Gliese 581g? Three days? A week?

Actually, 11 years.

No word yet on the rumour that Prof. Steven Vogt has been engaged since 1978.

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