GJ 581g: Cool planets are hard to find
by Patricia Draznin

In a solar system far, far away, astronomers have discovered a planet with certain earth-like conditions that could sustain life. Maybe not life as we know it, a carbon-based protein with the right to remain silent. But GJ581g does have the critical temperature range to qualify as “cool.” Which describes not just its ability to impress other planets but the presence of liquid water, similar to the kind we earthlings consume in 12-ounce plastic bottles. It also has enough gravity to hold an atmosphere. A sensible atmosphere. GJ581g is locked in position facing its sun star Gliese 581, so one side of the planet bathes in continuous light without ever having to use those weird little compact fluorescents.

Since the 1990s, observations of distant solar systems have revealed nearly 500 planets, but we still can’t find where they dumped Pluto. This also begs the question: do we really need to search the universe for other planets when we’re so busy trashing this one? Or are we just running out of Facebook friends? Or maybe we’re just being human and exploring the unknown. Just wondering who is out there, wanting to hear their ideas, learn about their natural resources, and invade them. And most of all, wanting to give them a better name than GJ581g, such as American Express Land, or Time Warner Cable World. Or Planet Pepsi.

This also raises the big question, is there life on other planets? And if so, what did they make of those signals from Jodie Foster in Contact? To tackle this problem we can try some mathematical probability. In 1962, Frank Drake formulated a crisp equation that quantifies N, the potential number of civilizations in the Milky Way with which communication might be possible:

To calculate N, simply multiply the average rate of star formation, times the percentage of stars with planets, times the number of planets that could support life, times the percentage that develop intelligent life, times the percentage of civilizations that signal their existence to outer space. The answer is no.

Planet GJ581g is destined to become a cool galactic suburb complete with hybrid vehicles, fair-trade coffee shops with bamboo floors, and 24-hour cable news without Glenn Beck. Travel time is 20 light years, due in part to a layover in Newark. If you book now you’ll receive the introductory travel package that includes aisle seating, space for one carry-on, in-flight holiday music every December, and liquid water for purchase in 12-ounce plastic bottles. Exact change appreciated.

Copyright 2010 Patricia Draznin


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