There’s some chatter on the web right now over a new scientific paper about a nearby exoplanet, and what I’m seeing are people speculating that it might be earth-like. Technology Review even titled their article "Astronomers Discover Habitable ExoEarth Orbiting Binary Star".
The problem with that is that the planet’s not terribly earth-like, and it may not be habitable*.
So what’s the deal? I read the journal article (PDF), and this really is a good story, just not the one I’m seeing the chatter about.
55 Cancri is a nearby binary star at a distance of about 40 light years. One star is a dinky red dwarf, and the other is a fairly Sun-like star, though somewhat smaller and cooler. It’s also much older, roughly 10 billion years old, more than twice the age of the Sun. It’s actually at the point where it’s starting to evolve into a red giant, and is called a sub-giant.
Back in 2007 it was announced that at least five planets orbit the bigger of the two stars (called 55 Cancri A; confusingly the red dwarf is 55 Cancri B (note the capital letter), while the planets are called b-f (lower case)). They range in mass from 0.026 to 3.84 times that of Jupiter (8.3 to 1200 times the mass of the Earth). 55 Cancri e is the lowest mass of these, but is extremely dense and hot, so not at all earth-like.
55 Cancri f is the interesting planet, though. The astronomers in question observed the star using an interferometer, allowing extremely precise measurements of the star’s size, which in turn yielded very accurate numbers for its temperature and mass. All these together can be used to figure out its "habitable zone", the region around it where an orbiting planet would have liquid water on its surface.
Now right away, I’ll say that finding the HZ (as we in the know call it) is not really straightforward. For example, a planet that has a thick atmosphere can be farther from its star and still have water due to the greenhouse effect; in fact, without air the average surface temperature of the Earth would be below freezing! And the greenhouse effect depends on what’s in the atmosphere, its density, and so on. So I am wary of any declarations of planets being habitable based on this alone.
Still, let’s see what we get. Read More