Possible Planet with Life Forms

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Fox News: “Strange Signal Comes From Alien Planet, Scientist Says”; Space.com: “Odds of Life on Newfound Earth-Size Planet ‘100 Percent,’ Astronomer Says”; & ScienceNOW: Recently Discovered Habitable World May Not ExistIf true, it would be perhaps the most revolutionary discovery in human history: a planet twenty light-years from earth that is not only habitable, but that has its own life-forms. There’s only one problem: scientists aren’t even sure the planet is there.

For evolution-believing astrobiologists, the announcement (which we first mentioned two weeks back) must have already seemed almost too good to be true. “My own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent,” claimed University of California–Santa Cruz astronomer Steven Vogt, one of the scientists reporting the discovery of exoplanet Gliese 581g. Exciting Vogt’s team was that the planet was believed to orbit in its star’s “habitable zone”—a distance from its star such that temperatures would allow water on the planet to remain liquid. For believers in evolution, that’s only a half-step away from life—hence Vogt’s plentiful confidence.

“My own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent.”

Adding to the hype was a more recent report from the University of Western Sydney’s Ragbir Bhathal. The astronomer claims to have detected a “suspicious pulse of light” two years ago that came from the general direction of Gliese 581g. “We found this very sharp signal,” he said, “sort of a laser lookalike thing which is the sort of thing we’re looking for—a very sharp spike.” However, at least one other astronomer is skeptical that the signal came from Gliese 581g.

But the claims are moot if research just released by Swiss astronomers turns out to be accurate. Researchers affiliated with the Observatory of Geneva announced at this week’s Astrophysics of Planetary Systems conference that they “could find no trace of [Gliese 581g] in their observations of the same planetary system.”

One of the researchers, Francesco Pepe, explained, “We do not see any evidence for a fifth planet . . . as announced by [Vogt’s team],” though he added that “we can’t prove there is no fifth planet,” either. A member of Vogt’s team shied away from Vogt’s certainty over the planet and its alleged life, agreeing that more data is needed to confirm that the hyped planet is really there.

Creationists are fascinated by scientifically rigorous discoveries about the universe around us, and learning about exoplanets is no exception. Still, the controversy over Gliese 581g’s existence is a powerful reminder of the indirect, tentative methods used to find and describe such planets—and, in turn, reminds us that any claims of life on other planets remain pure speculation.

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