Twilight on Earth,
Morning on Gleise 581c

Twilight on Earth, Morning on Gleise 581c

phot-22c-07-preview.jpgThere are certain questions and dreams that drive society in its quest for the stars. Is there life beyond the Earth? How (and when) will we reach other worlds? What will it take to reach other worlds with life? For a long time, astronomers thought that we were still a long time away from being able to find the type of planets a person can actually stand on. Until within just the past couple weeks, we had assumed that it would take a new generation of space missions – Terrestrial Planet Finder, Darwin, some space-based interferometer – before discovery of these rocky worlds started entering the scientific literature.

But as soon as we think we know something, the universe has a habit of surprising us.

On April 25, the European Southern Observatory announced the discovery of a planet, Gliese 581c, with a mass M sin i* = 5 times the mass of the Earth. This is the smallest world that has thus far been found, and the first nearby world that we are fairly certain we can stand on (or at least sail a boat on). This little world is just 20.48 light years away. Using our fastest current space craft, New Horizons, and traveling at its zippy 10 mi/s, we could be there in just, um, well… 382,828.56 years.

Clearly faster space craft are called for.

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