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Space Science

Super-Earths Discovered Orbiting Nearby, Sun-Like Star 242

Posted by Soulskill
from the i-for-one dept.
likuidkewl writes "Two super-earths, 5 and 7.5 times the size of our home, were found to be orbiting 61 Virginis a mere 28 light years away. 'These detections indicate that low-mass planets are quite common around nearby stars. The discovery of potentially habitable nearby worlds may be just a few years away,' said Steven Vogt, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC. Among hundreds of our nearest stellar neighbors, 61 Vir stands out as being the most nearly similar to the Sun in terms of age, mass, and other essential properties."
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Super-Earths Discovered Orbiting Nearby, Sun-Like Star

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  • mmmm (Score:2, Funny)

    by JeanBaptiste (537955)

    61 virgins...... drool.....

  • Yes, nearby (Score:5, Informative)

    by elrous0 (869638) * on Monday December 14, 2009 @05:57PM (#30436118)

    Yes, a mere 28 light years away. So all we need to do is get in the fastest spacecraft we've ever built and we can be there in just about 150,000 years.

    Who's coming with me?!?!?

    • by elysiuan (762931)

      Not so much a problem for the folks on the spacecraft, relativity can make the journey very manageable for them. They better not think about returning home to see Grandma though...

      • by The Archon V2.0 (782634) on Monday December 14, 2009 @06:04PM (#30436188)

        Not so much a problem for the folks on the spacecraft, relativity can make the journey very manageable for them. They better not think about returning home to see Grandma though...

        So space will be colonized by people with dysfunctional families?

      • by beefnog (718146) on Monday December 14, 2009 @06:05PM (#30436202)
        What'd probably happen is about five years (as the travelers perceive it) after launch we'll develop faster-than-light travel and interrupt their journey. Or maybe just let them ride it out as a curious time capsule to cruise by and show buttcheek to.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        What relativistic effects are you expecting at .0002c ?

        • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 14, 2009 @06:16PM (#30436344)

          At .0002c, it would take about 14000 years to get there, but the lucky astronauts would only experience 13999.99972 years. Sign me up!

      • Re:Yes, nearby (Score:5, Insightful)

        by jamesh (87723) on Monday December 14, 2009 @06:07PM (#30436236)

        Not so much a problem for the folks on the spacecraft, relativity can make the journey very manageable for them.

        I think we're a long way off building a spaceship that can achieve the speeds where that effect would make any difference.

        • Re:Yes, nearby (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Judinous (1093945) on Monday December 14, 2009 @06:29PM (#30436552)
          We aren't as far off as you think. What's important is being able to constantly accelerate during the journey. Slow and steady acceleration wins the race. You're not going to do that with a chemical rocket, but with an on-board nuclear reactor and a few advancements in ion propulsion or vacuum propellers, we could make the trip. We could easily launch a probe to start making the journey in the next five years, if we allocated the budget to do so. Humans could make the trip as well, given the right accommodations--only a few years would be passing on-board. None of the technology to do this is very far-fetched at all, but we just aren't willing to spend the money.
          • by Columcille (88542)
            "None of the technology to do this is very far-fetched at all, but we just aren't willing to spend the money." But what would be the point? There is something to be said for pure science but we can usually expect some sort of positive result even from science that lacks immediate application. But given relativistic effects, how long until any science comes home? By that point we may well have discovered anything the astronauts managed to find "out there".
            • by Judinous (1093945)
              It will be a long time until any of the science from the target planet comes home. It will almost immediately begin delivering useful data in the meantime, however. There are a lot of things to see on the way out of the solar system, and a lot of interesting data to be gathered during the journey.
          • Or, right now, we could build something propelled by nuclear explosions -- like the now-dead Project Orion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_(nuclear_propulsion) [wikipedia.org]
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            Slow and steady acceleration wins the race. You're not going to do that with a chemical rocket, but with an on-board nuclear reactor and a few advancements in ion propulsion or vacuum propellers, we could make the trip. We could easily launch a probe to start making the journey in the next five years, if we allocated the budget to do so. Humans could make the trip as well, given the right accommodations--only a few years would be passing on-board.

            Not so few as you might think. At 0.01G, we're talking about

            • Re:Yes, nearby (Score:4, Interesting)

              by Grishnakh (216268) on Monday December 14, 2009 @07:18PM (#30437096)

              If we stick with only 1.0G, then we wouldn't need artificial gravity for the people on board. We could maintain 1.0G acceleration on the way there, then spin the ship around (so the floor is pointing towards the destination) and maintain 1.0G deceleration for the second half of the journey.

              The problem is, even if that means the people on board only experience 5-25 years, how much time will pass on Earth before we found out what this exploration team discovers there? (Remember, once they get there after however many years (hundreds? thousands?), they'd have to send their data by radio at light-speed, which would take yet another 28 years.) If we were to pony up the money to finance a mission like this, we, our children, our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren would never find out the results, if any. We'd probably develop FTL in that time and have a colony already established on any viable planets in the 61 Virgo system before this team even arrived!

              As far as I'm concerned, the only way any mission to another star system at low sub-light speeds makes any sense is if you're going to launch a "generation ship", a giant ship with an entire colony on board with everything needed to be self-sustaining indefinitely, so that this ship can travel from star system to star system, radioing back what it finds in each one and continuing until they find a place worth stopping at and establishing a permanent colony. But a ship like this would in itself be a major leap in technology, since we certainly don't have the capability to build such a massive space-based structure that can travel long distances through space, be self-supporting indefinitely, and able to handle any problems it might encounter (micrometeors?).

              • "If we stick with only 1.0G, then we wouldn't need artificial gravity for the people on board."

                Considering their new home has five earth masses at the very least, they might as well get used to 5.0G. Ouch.

                • by Grishnakh (216268)

                  With 5.0g, I think they better prepare for a round-trip journey, as this is only going to be a sightseeing journey.

                • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

                  "If we stick with only 1.0G, then we wouldn't need artificial gravity for the people on board."

                  Considering their new home has five earth masses at the very least, they might as well get used to 5.0G. Ouch.

                  Umm, no. Five Earth masses at the same density as Earth means about 1.7G.

                  Double the density, and the planet pulls about 2.7G, but has stopped being Earthlike (density as high as silver?! ouch!).

                • by CecilPL (1258010)

                  It doesn't really scale that way - you also have to take the density into account. The planet would likely have a larger radius, meaning you're higher up in the gravitational field when you stand on the surface.

                  Consider that Mars has a mass around 10% of Earth's, but a surface gravity of nearly 0.4g.

                  Hell, Uranus has a mass 14.5 times Earth's but surface gravity is still less than 1g. (As much as Uranus can be considered to have a "surface" as opposed to just a really thick atmosphere)

              • Re:Yes, nearby (Score:4, Interesting)

                by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Monday December 14, 2009 @07:49PM (#30437500)

                If we stick with only 1.0G, then we wouldn't need artificial gravity for the people on board. We could maintain 1.0G acceleration on the way there, then spin the ship around (so the floor is pointing towards the destination) and maintain 1.0G deceleration for the second half of the journey.

                The problem is, even if that means the people on board only experience 5-25 years, how much time will pass on Earth before we found out what this exploration team discovers there? (Remember, once they get there after however many years (hundreds? thousands?), they'd have to send their data by radio at light-speed, which would take yet another 28 years.) If we were to pony up the money to finance a mission like this, we, our children, our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren would never find out the results, if any. We'd probably develop FTL in that time and have a colony already established on any viable planets in the 61 Virgo system before this team even arrived!

                1G = 7 years internal time, 30 years as time is measured on Earth. So you'd be getting messages back with 60 years.

                0.01G = 100-odd years internal time, 107 years as time is measured on Earth. Messages back about 210 years after departure.

                Note that 1G sustained isn't going to be practical for a very long time, but that 0.01G sustained (for 100+ years) is a maybe within the century.

                Note that if we launched a 0.01G ship day after tomorrow, then sometime around 2185 we launched a 1G ship, the 1G ship would get there first.

                On the other hand, I don't think a generation ship is entirely beyond the realms of possibility within the next 50 years. Yes, it would require some incredible engineering to get it done. But it wouldn't require as much new technology as one might think - the sheer size allows you to get away with things that aren't practical in a smaller ship. Like lakes, fields, forests, that sort of thing.

                • by Grishnakh (216268)

                  Note that 1G sustained isn't going to be practical for a very long time, but that 0.01G sustained (for 100+ years) is a maybe within the century.

                  The problem here is that 1G sustained means your ship will be liveable by humans for those 7 years with no problem. 0.01G is not liveable at all; humans can't survive long-term in microgravity. Not only that, 100 years is too long; no one will live that long (assuming you launch them when they're 20-25). They could have kids along the way, but that's probably g

                  • Re:Yes, nearby (Score:5, Interesting)

                    by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Monday December 14, 2009 @08:31PM (#30438102)

                    The problem here is that 1G sustained means your ship will be liveable by humans for those 7 years with no problem. 0.01G is not liveable at all; humans can't survive long-term in microgravity.

                    And of course it would be impossible to spin the ship, right?

                    Any ship big enough for a 100 year trip will be more than big enough to spin so that the rim of the ship experiences enough gravity to keep the crew healthy.

                    Not only that, 100 years is too long; no one will live that long (assuming you launch them when they're 20-25).

                    I take it you've never heard of the "generation ship" concept?

                    Humans can't live their entire lives (including their all-important formative years) in a small spacecraft with little social interaction.

                    And who ever suggested a small spacecraft? If I were designing it, it'd be 20 km long and 5-6 Km in diameter. With a crew of about 100,000.

                    A generation ship, however, could solve this problem (kids could very conceivably be raised on a giant ship with lakes and forests and a whole functioning mini-society), but as you said, this would require some incredible engineering. Lifting that much material into orbit really needs a space elevator, for starters.

                    So you DO know about generation ships! Great!

                    Hint: you don't build a generation ship from Earth. You start with an asteroid, and stock pretty much everything except the lifeforms aboard from other sources than Earth.

                    Note also that "incredible engineering" really means "expensive". It doesn't necessarily mean "difficult".

                    And this still doesn't address the gravity problem; those lakes and forests aren't going to work without artificial gravity.

                    Spin it. If it's six km in diameter, you have to spin it at 0.55 rpm to get 1G on the rim. And note that you have 360 km^2 worth of rim on the ship I described above. With a deck every 100 meters, we're talking a couple hundred thousand hectares at > 0.9G.

                    Alas, the likelihood of humanity building a generation ship is miniscule.

                    What passes for government here on Earth can't look far enough ahead. If we KNEW there was an alien species living there, and that they would be willing to give us the secret of FTL if only we sent someone there to collect, we'd still never get one built...

                    But the only real difficulty with doing so is the drive - the lifesystem, the physical structure, that sort of thing is almost trivial in comparison.

                    • by Grishnakh (216268)

                      And of course it would be impossible to spin the ship, right?

                      Any ship big enough for a 100 year trip will be more than big enough to spin so that the rim of the ship experiences enough gravity to keep the crew healthy.

                      Whoops, forgot about that. It would need to be a fairly sizeable ship though, so the gravity at a person's head isn't noticeably different than the gravity at their feet (so a ship like the Discovery One in 2001 is out).

                      And who ever suggested a small spacecraft? If I were designing it, it'd

                  • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                    by Mycroft_VIII (572950)
                    You wouldn't lift the whole mass of a generation ship from Earth, In fact the main mass would likely be a modified asteroid.
                    You need an asteroid of about the right composition and size/shape.
                    Drill a hole down the center long ways and fill with mostly water and cap the end, then set spinning and focus sunlight on it with big mirrors. After a bit it gets hot and soft as the water inside boils providing the pressure to expand the now soft asteroid.
                    There is a
                • On the other hand, I don't think a generation ship is entirely beyond the realms of possibility within the next 50 years. Yes, it would require some incredible engineering to get it done. But it wouldn't require as much new technology as one might think - the sheer size allows you to get away with things that aren't practical in a smaller ship. Like lakes, fields, forests, that sort of thing.

                  A generation ship wouldn't just be an epic feat of engineering, it would be an epic feat of engineering that has no p

                  • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

                    A generation ship wouldn't just be an epic feat of engineering, it would be an epic feat of engineering that has no payoff for centuries (from the point of view of the population assigned to the ship, unless just being on the ship is a payoff for them) or millenia (from the point of view of the rest of the planet.) So, really, where is the huge investment going to come from? Epic engineering projects -- the Panama Canal, for instance -- do happen, but they happen because the people paying for them expect so

                • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

                  by elrous0 (869638) *

                  I don't think a generation ship is entirely beyond the realms of possibility within the next 50 years.

                  The main problem with that kind of effort isn't the engineering, it's the motivation. Yes, it might be possible to build something like that within a century, but that would mean many trillions of $, the concerted efforts of thousands of scientists, the work of dozens of countries pumping a significant portion of their GDP into a cooperative effort, etc.

                  Politically, that's pretty much impossible. You're

            • by jamesh (87723)

              Not so few as you might think. At 0.01G, we're talking about 100 years as measured by clocks on the ship.

              I think the bigger problem is that 10 years after we launch that one, technology will improve and we'll be able to send one at 0.02G, which will overtake the first one.

          • What about decelerating once we got there? That'd be kinda important, too. ;)
          • by Grishnakh (216268)

            No one wants to spend tons of money to send a group of people on a dangerous mission to a place that far away. Even if they survive, and assuming they can make it in their lifetimes due to relativistic effects, thousands of years will pass on Earth before we finally receive radio transmissions back from this team when they reach 61 Virginis. For all we know, during that time, someone will develop FTL technology. By the time the people inside reach their destination, they'd find an Earth colony or researc

          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            Unfortunately, it's a lot further off than you think. To accelerate to near the speed of light, regardless of the method, requires an enormous level of energy: for comparison, the space shuttle (68,000 kg) going at half the speed of light will have a kinetic energy of 9.455x10^20 joules. Again, for comparison, the total solar flux of the earth is about 1.75x10^17 watts, while total human power consumption is around 16x10^12 watts.
            • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

              by Red Flayer (890720)

              for comparison, the space shuttle (68,000 kg) going at half the speed of light will have a kinetic energy of 9.455x10^20 joules. Again, for comparison, the total solar flux of the earth is about 1.75x10^17 watts, while total human power consumption is around 16x10^12 watts.

              Protip: for easy comparison of VLNs, make sure they are in the same units (although anyone on slashdot should know that 1 Joule is equal to one Watt-Second).

              But anyway, your numbers make the answer quite clear. We need a nuclear fusion

          • We aren't as far off as you think. What's important is being able to constantly accelerate during the journey. Slow and steady acceleration wins the race. You're not going to do that with a chemical rocket, but with an on-board nuclear reactor and a few advancements in ion propulsion or vacuum propellers, we could make the trip. We could easily launch a probe to start making the journey in the next five years, if we allocated the budget to do so. Humans could make the trip as well, given the right accommoda

        • Pebbles hurt at lightspeed.

      • Not so much a problem for the folks on the spacecraft, relativity can make the journey very manageable for them.

        Populate it with those /. virgins in the earlier thread and I think we have a winner.

    • by khallow (566160)

      Yes, a mere 28 light years away. So all we need to do is get in the fastest spacecraft we've ever built and we can be there in just about 150,000 years.

      I suggest we go faster than that. It'll only take me 18,000 years to properly pimp out my hardcore Diablo character. What am I going to do with the rest of the time?

    • by Locke2005 (849178)
      Who's coming with me?!?!? Sorry, I'm waiting for them to develop an even faster spacecraft. But don't worry -- I'll be there to greet you when you arrive!
  • fat (Score:2, Interesting)

    by dumuzi (1497471)
    A more massive Earth is no good, if I go there I will be hundreds of pounds (unless the planet's radii are more then 2.5 and 2.7 times greater then Earths). I want a smaller Earth to visit so my BMI calculation will no longer show me to be obese. Let me know when you find something with about 0.8 of Earths gravity.

    Some water would be nice too.

    • That depends on the density of the planet.

      A core made of materials with lower density than liquid iron and nickel could be larger but of overall less mass. The result would be a bigger planet with the same or lower gravity.

  • Fishy... (Score:3, Funny)

    by chocomilko (1544541) on Monday December 14, 2009 @06:01PM (#30436154)
    Hey! I thought it was supposed to be 70 Virginis.

    Something tells me that these astronomers are keeping Virginis 1 through 9 to themselves. Grab your torches and pitchforks, kids.
  • dissapointing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jocabergs (1688456) on Monday December 14, 2009 @06:05PM (#30436212)
    High gravity + Close to its star = big fat, sweaty alien women.

      I'll get excited when we find a planet about 93 million miles away from its star, the proper solar light properties for blue skin and near earth gravity. I've always had a thing for blue skinned alien girls.
    • by tverbeek (457094)

      I for one, am a little nervous about meeting our flying, heat-vision-wielding overlords from Super-Earth.

    • I've always had a thing for blue skinned alien girls.

      Mr Shatner, I didn't realise you were a slashdot user! Nice to talk to you! Please don't write any more Star Trek films though. Star Trek V was enough.

  • Wow, a confirmation (Score:5, Informative)

    by MillionthMonkey (240664) on Monday December 14, 2009 @06:09PM (#30436262)
    Why is everyone surprised that super-earths are orbiting other stars? I've always wondered that.

    Anyway in case anyone hasn't RTFA (or noticed the light-gray on white links at the top of the oklo.com page) you yourself can help them search for nearby earths by downloading the tool at http://oklo.org/downloadable-console/ [oklo.org] while you're still unemployed.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by zill (1690130)

      Why is everyone surprised that super-earths are orbiting other stars? I've always wondered that.

      Because the the term "super-earth" is intentionally used to misled the general public into thinking that those planets have a Earth-like habitat, which imply the possibility of colonization.

      If the title was instead "Heavier than Earth rocky planets found outside of the solar system" no one would read it.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by TropicalCoder (898500)

        There is nothing in the article to support the title, "First Super-Earths Discovered Orbiting Sun-Like Stars". First they say "These detections indicate that low-mass planets are quite common around nearby stars." and then later "The inner planet of the 61 Vir system is among the two or three lowest-amplitude planetary signals that have been identified with confidence". and finally, "The researchers said they cannot tell yet if HD 1461b is a scaled-up version of Earth, composed largely of rock and iron, or

    • by Tynin (634655)

      Why is everyone surprised that super-earths are orbiting other stars? I've always wondered that.

      I think it has to do with the fact that finding exo-planets, especially ones only a few times larger than our planet, is still something new. We've only been able to confirm extrsolar planets for 17 years, and it has only been in the last 5 years that we've been detecting anything even remotely as small as Earth. I agreed that as time goes on these will be less note worth, as we are getting better at detection, at least until we find something in the .8 to 2.0 Earth masses range which would be quite the new

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        at least until we find something in the .8 to 2.0 Earth masses range which would be quite the news.

        Wake me up when you find a .8 to 1.2 Earth masses with oxygen and water.

    • I don't think it's surprise so much as it's excitement: "We always thought they were there, and now we know they're there! Friggin' awesome!" I imagine scientists having this reaction, typically followed by chest-bumps.
  • Super War (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 14, 2009 @06:12PM (#30436312)

    I say it is high time we develop a warp ship capable of carrying the combined military might of the entire planet to this system.

    We'll move quickly, from one "Super" Earth to the next, conquering indigenous peoples and enslaving them to toil in our mines until the planet is naught but a smoldering husk, a shadow of what used to be.

    Then we'll see who is "Super".

    Who's with me!?!

  • 28 light years (Score:4, Interesting)

    by girlintraining (1395911) on Monday December 14, 2009 @06:16PM (#30436342)

    Yes, a mere 28 light years away. So all we need to do is get in the fastest spacecraft we've ever built and we can be there in just about 150,000 years.

    Well, maybe not us, but bacteria could. Or... maybe bacteria came from there, and landed here. Betcha didn't think of that.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Hurricane78 (562437)

      Bet that bacteria did not think about that either.

      You know... cause they’re bacteria! ^^

  • Drake's Equation (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Is the estimation of Drake's equation getting better now with the discovery of more plants? Does anyone have an up to date estimate?

    • by reverseengineer (580922) on Monday December 14, 2009 @07:52PM (#30437534)
      It's more like that the Drake equation has gone from an relation where all the variables are unknown to one where about half the variables are unknown. Advances in astronomy have allowed us to refine estimates of the number of stars in the galaxy, the fraction of those stars with planets, and the age of the galaxy. Studies like those the article refers to could potentially pin a value down on the "number of planets that could potentially support life per star with planets." The very meaning of that variable, however, depends on what characteristics you would consider necessary to support life.

      From the progress of exoplanet searches so far, it does seem likely that some planets will be found that could support life in an earth-like sense (terrestrial with liquid water, at minimum). So, maybe four variables with potentially supportable estimates (and exoplanet searching is in its infancy, so that estimate will develop over time).

      But the other variables in the Drake equation? What fraction of "habitable" planets actually develop life? What fraction of those develop intelligent life? Intelligent life that sends out detectable signals into space? And what is the expected lifetime of such civilizations? Values we might assign to those variables would be pure conjecture, with our only evidence being our own anecdote of existence.
      • by radtea (464814)

        But the other variables in the Drake equation? What fraction of "habitable" planets actually develop life?

        Almost all.

        What fraction of those develop intelligent life?

        Almost none.

        The other two questions are irrelevant, because the probability of evolving specifically human-like, machine-building intelligence is so close to zero as to make everything else moot.

        Specifically human, machine-building intelligence of the kind that builds radios, writes symphonies, creates industrial civilizations are almost certain

  • We've found it. Get started on Artificial Gravity and Terraforming tech so we can use it when we fill up Earth that was.
    • by TheMeuge (645043)

      Let's start with FTL or at least relativistic-speed conventional propulsion instead.

      If we have FTL travel, finding a habitable planet becomes a fairly trivial task.

      • by Grishnakh (216268)

        I don't know about "trivial" but certainly a lot more realistic. Remember, even with a ship capable of traveling 1c, it would take 28 years to get to 61 Virginis to check it out close-up to see if there's anything habitable there. Sure, the people inside would only age a few months or less, but the rest of us here on Earth waiting for word on what's in this system would have to wait 56 years, unless they develop some type of communications technology allowing for communications much faster than c (in whic

  • If they had be found to be orbiting 72 Virginis then a certain religious theory might have become more feasible. But no ...still pending evidence.
  • From the article, these planets are between 5 and 25 times as massive as the Earth. These planets are notable because they orbit a star that is about the same temperature and mass as the Sun, the planets themselves are of unknown composition.
  • Since I haven't seen anyone else mention it yet...

    "Size" and "mass" are two different things.

    Size has to do with physical dimensions, whereas mass is an intrinsic property of matter. TFA clearly states these super Earths are 5 to 7.5 times the mass of Earth, not the "size." Summary is wrong.

  • World energy use is increasing about 2% a year. Speed of a vehicle goes as the square root of the kinetic energy. Therefore if the speed of a vehicle depends on the energy you have to throw at the problem, you can expect your spaceships to get faster about 1% a year.

    Therefore any trip over 100 years, you would expect a faster ship launched later to overtake you. So any spaceship heading for alpha Centauri (4.3 light years), you may as well wait till you have 4% of lightspeed ships or better.

    • by phrostie (121428)

      but if you build it with the ability to engineer and modify/fabricate faster/newer engines as they go based on the real time data obtained in flight, then even without the resources of earth they should be able to increase their own speed. maybe not at the full 1%, but still.

  • So lets dial the startgate and go there.

  •       Relatively geeky crowd, orbiting dead cat, Contact.

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