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Could Chance for Life on Gliese 581g Actually Be “100%”?

The orbits of planets in the Gliese 581 system are compared to those of our own solar system. The Gliese 581 star has about 30 percent the mass of our Sun, and the outermost planet is closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun. The 4th planet, G, is a planet that could sustain life. Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation

The announcement yesterday of the discovery of the closest Earth-sized planet found so far that also exists in the habitable zone around its star is certainly exciting (read our previous article for all the details). Gliese 581g is surely a potential habitable planet where liquid water could exist on the planet‘s surface, and many are touting the old adage of where there’s water, there’s life. However, some quotes from one of the scientists involved in the discovery might be feeding some wild speculation about the potential for life on this extrasolar planet and elsewhere. “Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent,” said discoverer and astronomer Steven Vogt during a press briefing yesterday. “I have almost no doubt about it.”

Yes, that is an exact quote. He really used those words. He also said that it would be pretty hard to imagine that water wouldn’t exist on the planet, given the ubiquity of water in our solar system and beyond, and the habitable region in which this planet orbits.

Also participating in the briefing was Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which provided funds for the observations at the Keck I telescope, and his comments were more tempered.

“Any discussion of life on at this point is purely speculative,” Butler said. “What we know is that this planet exists at the right distance for liquid water it has the right amount of mass to hold on to its atmosphere and any liquid water on the surface. So any subsequent discussion of life there is purely speculative. That being said, on the Earth anywhere you find liquid water you find life in overwhelming abundance. The question should be, if this planet has liquid water, how can you rule out life doesn’t exist? It is pretty probable that anywhere you find liquid water pooling, that you would find life existing.”

Are Vogt’s claims too extreme, or were they made in exhilaration during an exciting announcement? This has been a topic of debate on Twitter this morning. Some wondered if Vogt had been misquoted, and many expressed that Vogt’s words may fuel off-the-deep-end speculation about the certainty of life on another world.

“Until we know more about this planet and the origin of life itself, any claim of certain habitation is idiotic and does not serve science,” said Dr. Stuart Clark (@DrStuClark), author and astronomy journalist. To clarify, he wanted others to know that he thinks just the claim is idiotic, not the discovery or the people involved.

“As cool as it is, please realize that right now *all* we really know about it is its orbit and estimated mass. That’s it.” said Lee Billings (@leebillings), editor at Seed Magazine. “In other words, barring observational evidence that may still be a generation away, Gliese 581g is ‘Earth-like’ only in terms of mass/orbit.”

From our pal Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer (@badastronomer): “I understand what he meant – he thinks it *could* have life – but it was phrased unfortunately, and the media have jumped on it, of course.”

From David Masten (@dmasten), CEO of the commercial space company Masten Space Systems: “I have an opinion or 3 about life on anything in Gliese 581! And I’d dare say much closer to zero chance. But I’m not an astrobiologist.”

“Claiming a 100% chance of life on Gliese 581g is definitely an overreach,” said astrophysicist Juan Cabanela (@Juan_Kinda_Guy) at Minnesota State University Moorhead, “given we currently have a sample of 1 planet with life.”

“Vogt’s extrapolation was certainly quite a leap. On the other hand, the media might finally get it that some scientists really do think life everywhere is possible – but not bug-eyed aliens” said Robert Cumming, (@maltesk), journalist at the Swedish magazine “Populär Astronomi.“. “Then we can also discuss why there might not be life everywhere after all.”

Mark Thompson (@PeoplesAstro), Astronomy presenter on BBC’s the One Show said the Vogt’s quote was “absolutely and totally inappropriate. We can’t even be 100% sure it’s made of rock!!!”

From astronomer, educator and journalist Nicole Gugliucci (@noisyastronomer): “The public seems to have enough trouble trusting science these days without scientists making bold statements like that.”

“100% is ridiculous,” Tweeted frequent image contributor to Universe Today, Stu Atkinson (@mars_stu). “No *possible* way anyone could know that, surely?”

Many expressed excitement over the discovery, and Stu articulated perhaps the most colorful, which was re-tweeted several times yesterday: “Ah, a PROPER planet!” Not a great fat bloated sweaty “Who ate all the pies” ‘hot Jupiter’ tearing insanely around its star.”

What are your views?

*all Tweets used by permission.

Here’s an article about abiogenesis, theories about how life got started here on Earth.


Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Olaf October 4, 2010, 2:53 PM

    I just want to add something.
    “Gliese” stars are the top 1000 closest stars to our sun.

    Also Gliese 581 = GJ581 = HIP74995 = many other alias names.

  • Spoodle58 October 6, 2010, 8:15 AM

    I honestly can say I haven’t read all the comments here but has anyone been thinking about how much longer these planets have been around than for example our own solar system. I think the figures on the age of this system are on the order of 7 billion years minimum. That would give plus 2 billion years evolution advantage on us, so these possible lifeforms may have visited us already albeit before most lifeforms evolved on Earth. Just some hypothetical food for thought.

  • Master159 October 10, 2010, 2:39 AM

    1 light year is long even, voyager1 and 2are not out of our solar system yet and they traveling now for 30+ Gliese 581is 20.5 lights years away and it would take

    At a space shuttle’s top speed 17,500 MPH it would take 766,000 years to get there