As More and More Are Found, Life Will Abound!

December 21, 2010 at 1:35 AM (Uncategorized)

My interest in the studies of astronomy have been enhanced exponentially, especially after my recent episode with this class that I took.  Now, I am finding myself on The Internet daily, reading about information that is posted about the latest discoveries from outer space.  More and more is being revealed about the increasing number of exoplanets, and these worlds being discovered that are being labeled as Super-Earths.

These worlds that astronomers are discovering, these Super-Earths, are supposed to be startlingly similar to our own homeworld, Earth.  They are larger than our Earth, as much as ten times as massive.  Due to these worlds being like our own, I am supposing that they are composed of the heavier elements, like iron, nickel, silicon, and the like.  Anymore of the lighter elements would combine to make them large, gas giants, like Jupiter and Saturn.

The term Super-Earth was initially fascinating because it seemed as if astronomers had stumbled upon distant worlds that had likely similarities to our Earth.  One might imagine that a “Super” Earth would be some version of our world on steroids!  It might be five to ten times as large, as massive, and it would possess all of the possibilities necessary for the formation of life.  Yet, that is not exactly what astronomers have in mind, when they are labeling these newly-discovered worlds as “Super-Earths”

It was a few years ago when I got acquainted with the term “Super-Earth”.  What really did it mean when astronomers and researchers were using this term?  I am reading that the label is being designated for exoplanets that indeed have the potential to be similar to our world.  However, the initial observations of these planets are showing that they are being called Super Earths only because of their mass. 

These worlds are bigger than our Earth.  They can range up to ten times as massive.   The planet would be heavier, thicker than Earth.  However, it seems that nothing has been found which actually would specify these types of planets as potential harborers of life.  They can exist within any orbital realm around their host stars, and likely be composed of any variety of elements.  I am seeing that these Super Earths simply have to be within 1.9 times to 10 times as massive as Earth.

Every Super Earth discovered, thus far, seems to be in orbit around a star that is like, or is cooler than our Sun.  The Sun is designated as a G-class star, the third-lowest level of temperature designations used to classify main sequence stars.  Super Earths are being discovered around stars that are G, K, and M classifications.

The planet Gliese 581c likely is the Super Earth that has been capturing the most attention.  It was discovered during 2007 as the second planet orbiting the star Gliese 581 (pronounced glee-za), some twenty light years away (which is close, in space terms…).  It is a standout because observations of this planet showed that it could be within a realm that would allow it to maintain a temperature suitable for things to be living on it.  Yet, further studies dismissed that idea, opting to observe it’s neighbor, Gliese 581g.  That world currently seems even more likely to be suitable for life. 

What is more fascinating is that a Super Earth has been identified recently, and it is a mere forty light years away.  It orbit’s it’s host star so closely that it’s surface is not solid, but it is lava.  Studies are showing that it is roughly 2.6 times as massive as Earth, with a possible hazy atmosphere of water-vapor.   Not to be presumptive, but, as far as we know, where there is water…..

The atmosphere of this planet most likely is a steam form of water.  It is being speculated that this vapor may exist within the planet’s atmosphere, shrouding the world in a thick steam-fog, like on Venus, or on Titan.  Reporters whom have gotten hold of this information are calling it a hot Super Earth, and it could be one of several such planets within the galaxy.  Apparently, they form in the outer realms of their solar systems, then work their ways inward until they are at seemingly, unbearably close ranges to their host stars. 

As they reach the positions that are in the immediate reaches of their stars, these hot Super Earths become tidally locked in their orbits.  One side always is facing the star, in daylight, and the other side always is at night.  The day side likely endures a heat beyond reason, while the other side stays drastically frigid.  It is highly unlikely that life resides on such a world because of these extremes, not discounting the unlikely and strange possibility that it exists within some strangely stable nook at the polar regions.

Yet, the seach continues.  The mere fact that these “Super Earths” have been found certainly elevates the chances of finding a planet that just might be surprisingly similar to our actual Earth.  Recall Jodie Foster’s character from Contact, saying that there likely are more stars out there than there are every grain of sand on Earth.  That is a lot of stars!  Even if a fourth of them have planets, and a fourth of that fourth are habitable, then there still is a great potential for life beyond!


artist concept of exoplanet


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