“If you want to describe in one sentence what this planet is, it’s a big, hot ocean,” said Harvard University astronomer David Charbonneau. “We can even study its atmosphere. This planet will occupy us for years. That’s part of what’s so exciting about it.”
Described by Charbonneau and 17 other astronomers in a paper published Wednesday in Nature, GJ 1214b is the latest of roughly 400 planets detected by earthly telescopes. Of these, 28 are considered “super-Earths” — planets with a mass roughly comparable to our own.
The super-Earths themselves are too distant to be seen. Instead, astronomers infer their presence from subtle distortions in starlight, caused when photons travel through the super-Earths’ gravitational fields. Depending on the degree of distortion, astronomers can even calculate a planet’s mass.
Once upon a time I asked my friend Rob Kroeger, who is a physicist at the University of Mississippi, how big the universe was across. He said it was approximately 150 billion light years across. When I asked him if that number was generated by the limit of the available technology, he replied "no, it is just that beyond that point, what you see is a 'fuzz' that seems to be the barrier." That we are able to discern with any degree of certainty the characteristics of objects at that distance speaks volumes of the current level of technology and understanding of astrophysics. What an awesome universe!
Now the other shoe. Does this planet have life? The story continues:
That list of ingredients raises at least the possibility of life. With an estimated temperature of 370 degrees Fahrenheit, GJ 1214b is an unlikely incubator (Earth’s toughest extremophile, a microbe that lives in deep-sea volcanic vents, maxes out at 284 degrees) but it’s not impossible.
“I don’t want to imply that there’s any indication of life as we know it. It might have life, but it would have to be a strange kind of life,” said Charbonneau.
The telescopes sure to be trained on GJ 1214b in the near future will try to answer that question. But even if it proves barren, other planets await. The telescopes that spotted GJ 1214b were custom designed to find Earth-like planets around nearby stars, and had only operated for a few months before striking water.
“We only look at a handful of stars before finding this planet, said Charbonneau. “Either we got lucky, or the planets are very common.”
But what if we did find a planet that did have life? Gordon Glover, in his excellent blog, Beyond the Firmament, addressed the issues that Christians had when it was discovered that there were people that lived on the other side of the world. He writes:
If all men are physically descended from Adam, and thus Adam’s sin is credited to their account, then any people living on the opposite ends of the earth must have traveled there from the Ancient World after Noah’s time. And since there was no record of any such journey, and the equatorial region was thought to be impassable by ship, it was absurd to think that descendants of Adam could inhabit such places.This led to the people on the other side of the world being dehumanized. Consequently, when the explorers visited these people, they treated them as if they were not human. It didn't occur to them that their theology needed revising. If there is life on one or some of these exoplanets, does that make God less of a God? Or these creatures less of his creations?
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