Planet Earth
Another planet capable of supporting human life, Captain? Image: im_chexo/Flickr/CC BY-SA

On “Star Trek” they called them Class M planets, i.e., those which are capable of supporting human life.  While that classification system is as fictitious as Captain Kirk and the Starship Enterprise, the reality it suggests may not be.  Scientists may be close to declaring the distant planet Gliese 581d to be the first discovered to meet that criteria.

Too far away to visit

Orbiting the red-dwarf star Gliese 581, located only 20 light-years from earth, the planet is one of our closest neighbors. However, it is still too far away to visit. With our current technology it would require 300,000 years to reach it, according to Science Daily.

Not too hot, not too cold

Scientists examined the atmosphere of the extraterrestrial world with a computer model that employs methods similar to those used to determine the Earth’s own climate.  It was found that the planet orbits on the outer fringes of the star’s “Goldilocks zone,” where it is not so hot that water boils away, nor so cold that it remains perpetually frozen. The climate is”just right” for water to remain in liquid form.

Third in the system to be thought habitable

The Gliese 581 system has been a popular one to look to in the search for habitable planets. Gliese 581d is the third planet in the system to receive such attention, but its predecessors did not hold up to greater scrutiny. Gliese 581e was ruled too cold. Gliese 581g, also known as “Zarmina’s World,” received considerable attention last year. Scientists announced that it was roughly the same mass as Earth and was also within the Goldilocks zone. However, that discovery has been disputed by many scientists, who claim it may not exist at all and was merely a “hiccup” in starlight. The planet’s discoverers still stand by their find.

An alien but supportable world

Gliese 581d, first spotted in 2007, has a mass at least seven times that of Earth and is about twice our planet’s size. It has no days or nights.  One side is perpetually light and one side is perpetually dark. However, a new study by French scientists at the Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique at the Institute Pierre Simon Laplace found that because of the star’s red light and the heavy carbon atmosphere, the planet has a greenhouse effect that regulates heat quite well. It is lit by a perpetual red twilight, and its gravity is twice that of the Earth. Though it would make walking difficult, human life could possibly exist under such conditions.


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