Super-Earth Found! So What?

Astronomers are elated: they've discovered a close extrasolar planet with water and an atmosphere

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Wednesday's announcement that Harvard astronomers (a grad student, to be precise) discovered a hot, relatively close, Earth-like extrasolar planet believed to be covered in water has sent the scientific community into conniptions. Of course, bloggers haven't been far behind, poring over the details of just how and what David Charbonneau's team spotted in the sky over Mount Hopkins, Arizona. Officially cataloged under the designation GJ 1214b, the exoplanet is distinct from two separate finds made earlier this week (and the 400 exoplanets discovered over the past 15 years). Why? It's the first of its kind to have an atmosphere and liquid water, which many consider promising indications of extraterrestrial light life. So far, science writers have only the discovery's meaning.

  • There All Along At Time magazine, Michael D. Lemonick reviews the counter-intuitive thinking that uncovered the super-Earth: "Perhaps the most exciting thing about the discovery of GJ 1214b is that the planet was found at all. Planet hunters usually focus their attention on Sun-like stars -- that is, large and hot -- on the assumption that if you're looking for life, you should look in a place that is as similar to our solar system as possible. Charbonneau, however, focused on about 2,000 small, dim, red stars known as M-dwarfs, nearby Earth." Tonic's David Bois offers a similar appraisal: "It's an astronomical find that was practically taunting us to come and get it: it's only 40 light years away. And it was discovered with the use of a 40 cm telescope, comparatively humble equipment available to the earnest but amateur backyard astronomer."
  • So Close... The Guardian's Ian Sample delights in the knowledge that GJ 1214b is a "mere" 40 light years (235145014927300 miles) away: "The latest planet is only a stone's throw away in astronomical terms, meaning scientists will be able to turn the Hubble Space Telescope towards it and analyse its atmosphere, potentially revealing signs of life. [discoverer] Charbonneau's team has already requested time on the space telescope." An exuberant Adrian Chen of Gawker is already planning a visit: "It's one of the most Earth-like planets discovered yet, and it's a mere 40 light-years away. Road trip!"
  • ...Yet So Far Away NPR All Things Considered writer Nell Greenfieldboyce evaporates the idea that the planet is accessible: "If you could ride a spaceship to this planet -- which you couldn't, because it is 40 light-years away -- you would first approach the small, feeble red star that the planet orbits once every 38 hours...Then you'd see the planet, bigger and heavier than Earth, and probably enshrouded in an alien atmosphere." The New York Times's Dennis Overbye calls it "a sultry world," but is similarly pessimistic about people setting up shop: "You would not want to live there. Besides the heat -- 400 degrees Fahrenheit on the ocean surface -- the planet is probably cloaked in a dark fog of superheated steam and other gases."
  • In Need of A Better Name At Wired, Brandon Keim hosts a naming contest that is attracting much interest from around the internet, including the unwanted attention of hackers, who have clogged the site with entries for 'Siberia.' Keim's set-up: "For now, GJ 1214b is tagged according to standard exoplanetary nomenclature: the technical name of the star it orbits, plus a letter to signify the order of its discovery. (The letter "a" is reserved for the star itself.) It's a name only a committee could love, and hardly appropriate to the discovery's emotional resonance." True/Slant's Coates Bateman responds: "I suggested Hasselhoff for obvious reasons...Super-Earth is kinda cool..." Neatorama blogger Miss Cellania also weighs-in: "Of course, Stephen Colbert is high on the list. I voted for Sagan."
  • Where To Next? At the sustainability-minded Smart Planet, Andrew Nusca suggests where to direct future exoplanet observation efforts: "The next challenge? Finding a planet with a habitable atmosphere, one that's cool enough to prevent its water from boiling on its surface. The question is whether most planets orbiting dim red stars have such an atmosphere, which is hostile to life. If so, astronomers would have to seek even smaller stars for signs of life."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.