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Misleading reporting of a super-Earth planet

April 25th, 2007 (09:49 am)
current mood: bemused

Today there are reports out about a planet which might be habitable for life. It's at the right distance from its primary to have liquid water on the surface, with an average surface temperature of 20° C (68° F). New Scientist describes it as "just right for life", which, at first glance, leaves you thinking "just right for Earth life". (From other stories, it's clear that the astronomers, at least, are thinking in the context of searches for extrasolar life.)

However, there's a catch...well, two catches, probably. The first is that the surface gravity is two gees. (New Scientist didn't mention this part, though they do include enough mass and radius data to deduce it. I Googled for the story, and found four versions, only one of which mentioned the gravity.) It might be possible for humans to live there, but we certainly wouldn't call it "just right".

The second catch is that the planet's temperature range is 0° to 40° C (32° to 104° F), and its year is only 13 Earth days long. If temperatures are swinging that fast, Earth life would have a hard time adjusting.

New Scientist also has one other odd claim: it says one of the researchers "hopes that spacecraft missions will probe the world for signs of life over the next decade or two". Since the star in question is 20 light-years away, this would be, er, tricky. Then, though, they provide an actual quote from the researcher, saying "this planet will most probably be a very important target of the future space missions dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial life". That's more reasonable.