Dan Rattiner's Stories

A Planet Disappears: Goldilocks Planet Not There

Here’s some really bad news for folks who have their fingers crossed that there are other planets out among the stars that we can flee to once global warming makes Earth uninhabitable. (Or if we can tame the Earth we can have some other folks on other planets we can talk to about it.)

Two planets we thought were like Earth and not very far away from us (just 20 million light years, just down the block) turn out not to be planets at all.

Apparently, the scientists, eager to become heroes two years ago when they stumbled upon these planets, didn’t consider all the data.

The planets in question have not yet been named. But they had been found—it was thought—orbiting a dwarf star called Gliese 581. Now it turns out it was just Gliese 581 emitting some sort of occasional bursts of gas that made these errant scientists think that.

Gliese 581, like all stars, emits all sorts of things, including a kind of magnetic signature. With other stars, the signature is a steady thing, which, if blocked by a planet passing in front of it while that one side is facing the earth, can appear to change.

It is that change that allows scientists to predict the existence of a planet, which although unable to be seen with a telescope, might, if following a certain pattern, cause us to believe that it is a “Goldilocks” planet where there is water, mountains, oceans, ice and so forth and so on, like ours.

In this case, however, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State named Suvrath Mahadevan, working with a postdoctoral fellow named Paul Robertson, has been able to explain that what appear to be proof of two planets circling Gliese 581 are just in fact burps and farts being emitted by that star that we should have realized were what we were observing.

“In the search for low-mass planets,” Mahadevan told the website Science Post, “accounting for the subtle signature of magnetics events in the star is as important as obtaining the highest possible Doppler precision.”

“While it is unfortunate to find that two such promising planets do not exist,” Robertson said, “we feel that the results of this study will ultimately lead to more Earth-like planets.”

In recent days many social media commentators have been suggesting that those originally touting these so-called planets as planets were just seeking the headlines and what does that mean for the science business—do we report everything, or do we wait for the final word to come in?

Meanwhile, if you listen very closely, you will hear a sigh of relief from the aliens on these two planets who don’t get along with one another and are grateful they don’t now have to concern themselves with some new aliens on Earth butting into their affairs.

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