Friday, October 01, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction: Life on Another Planet?

By now, you may have heard about Gliese 581g, a newly discovered extrasolar planet only about 20 light-years from us. What's special about this planet is that it's in the habitable zone (also known as the Goldilocks zone, where water could be liquid) and could possibly support life. It's also a rocky planet with an atmosphere (I haven't seen data on the composition of this) and gravity comparable to Earth's. According to this article on CNN, some scientists think it's a given that there really is life on Gliese 581g. Personally, I think they should confirm first that there really is water on that planet. I haven't seen a report stating that they have detected water on Gliese 581g, so if you've seen one, please provide a link.

(Of course, there may be types of life out there that don't require liquid water, but for purposes of this blog post, let's stick to lifeforms that operate on similar principles to Terran life.)

If there is life on this planet, what would it be like? Let's extrapolate from what we know about this planet so far:

It orbits a red dwarf star which is cooler than our sun but has a much longer life span. I don't know enough about astronomy or physics to state how the light given off by the red dwarf would differ from sunlight, other than to say it would be different. Plants (or plant-like creatures) might have to use a different wavelength of light than they do here. This would mean that they would use some other energy-capturing protein besides chlorophyll, so they might not be green. Also, if the type of light given off by the red dwarf doesn't provide enough energy, life on Gliese 581g might rely on thermal vents or other sources of energy instead.

The planet is tidally locked, with one side always facing its star and the other always facing away. Although the overall temperature of the planet is similar to Earth's (highest average temperature of -12ºC or 10ºF), I don't know what the temperature is on the warm side or what the variation is from equator to pole. Is this planet tilted on its axis? Does it have seasons? Its year is only about 37 Earth days, so seasons would only be a week or so long. Any life on this planet would have to adapt to this short span, suggesting that life might have a shorter life span as well and move at a fast pace.

As you can see, there's still a lot of data missing that would tell us more about what type of life this planet could support. Can anyone think of science fiction books or stories set on a planet orbiting a red dwarf? If so, please share the titles/authors with us. It would be very interesting to see how well science fiction matches science's findings.


Maria Zannini said...

I read this article! I was so excited about the potential. And it's relatively close too. --at least close enough that we might someday send a probe.

I'm looking forward to any future updates they have on this planet.

Arlee Bird said...

You lost me with this stuff. I don't really keep up with it much and don't read much science fiction these days. Back when I did read science fiction a lot (1960s) I don't recall any talk like that, but I will say a lot of what I read about then did come to pass and surpassed the way things are now. Who would have dreamed about the internet and capabilities of computers back then.

Tossing It Out

PK Hrezo said...

Awesome! I hadn't heard of this. SO thanks for posting it. This stuff blows my mind... I love it. But I still can't get used to Pluto being a moon.

The Golden Eagle said...

I'm thinking Nemesis by Isaac Asimov; I'm not positive that it was a red dwarf, but it was something like it.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Maria--yes, it is exciting. I wonder if they will send a probe soon. I don't know if we'll still around when the probe arrives, though.

Lee--Sorry about that, but since I'm a science geek, I do post stories like this occasionally. Computers sure have come a long way since how they were portrayed on the original Star Trek.

PK--I think Pluto is now considered a dwarf planet, not a moon. It is weird that it's not a real planet anymore.

Golden Eagle--Thanks; I'll have to check out that book.

Talli Roland said...

Interesting - how fascinating! I hadn't heard of this!

Carolyn Abiad said...

Very interesting - though I got lost in some of the details for a minute there...

I've posted an award for you over on my blog. Enjoy!

Anonymous said...

Man, this stuff is so fascintating!!!!

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