The Science of Sustainability

Gliese 667 Cc: Musing the Possibilities of Another Earth

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Artist concept of exoplanet Gliese 667 Cc. Credit: L. Calcada/ESA

Artist concept of exoplanet Gliese 667 Cc. Credit: L. Calcada/ESA

Welcome to Gliese 667 Cc. We hope you enjoy your vacation stay on this amazing planet. You have traveled 23 light years from Earth, but the wonders you will witness are well worth the trip.

It could happen, sometime in the future. Maybe. In the meantime, let's read the travel brochure.

Discovered long ago, in 2009, Gliese 667 Cc, as it was originally named, is a model of how un-Earth-like an Earth-like planet can be. First, you may notice that you've put on a few pounds under this super-Earth's greater gravity. You may also think you're losing your sight, since this planet's dim red dwarf sun shines only a fraction of the visible light Earth's Sun does. Finally, as promised, your vacation here will last an entire year and hopefully you read the fine print that this planet's year is only four weeks long.

Okay, back to reality. It's 2013, we do not (yet) have luxury cruisers warping people to other worlds, and we still haven't set foot on another planet. In fact, it's been less than two decades since we detected the first actual extrasolar planet (aka, exoplanet; planets orbiting stars other than our sun).

However, since that first exoplanet was found in 1992, we've made some decent progress in exploring other worlds out there, and may even be zeroing in on that "other Earth."

Today the count of confirmed exoplanets stands somewhere around 867, with another 2900 or so "candidates" whose existence is waiting to be confirmed. And over 2700 of those candidates were brought to our attention within the past three years by NASA's Kepler mission, whose goal is to find Earthlike planets—Earthlike, in terms of size and habitability potential.

In that mix are seven planets currently touted as potentially habitable—habitable to life as we know it, at least, with conditions that are friendly to the presence of liquid water. It should be noted that this is what scientists mean by habitability: conditions such that liquid water could exist, given an adequate atmosphere and an abundance of water molecules. This definition does not require that a human being could survive in that environment.

Back to Gliese 667 Cc. One of three exoplanets (two confirmed, one candidate) orbiting the red dwarf star Gliese 667 C (one of three stars in a triple star system), this one rates highly on the habitability scale (meaning we can imagine there being oceans, a water cycle, and potentially life), but at the same time is strikingly different in several ways to that prototype of Earthlike planets, Earth.

It is a "super-Earth", meaning, as you might expect, bigger than Earth: estimated at 4.8 times the mass of Earth. Depending on its diameter, that could mean surface gravity notably greater than what we're used to: things weigh more, rain falls faster, landscapes are sculpted with a heavier hand.

It orbits within its star's habitable zone—the proper distance so that water can be in liquid form—but since that star is a red dwarf, and much fainter than the Sun, that proper distance is much closer, about a tenth the Earth-Sun distance. Being so close to its star, Gliese 667 Cc only takes about 28 days to complete an orbit and mark its own year. Imagine a birthday party every month!

It has also been suggested that, since this super-Earth is so close to its star, it is probably tidally locked, rotating only once per revolution and keeping the same face toward its star at all times. This would give Gliese 667 Cc a "day" hemisphere and a "night" hemisphere, so you could choose the time of day you like and stick with it. It would also likely mean a perpetually hot side and a perpetually cold side—unless a thick, Venus-like atmosphere exists that might keep surface temperatures globally similar.

Between these extremes, in the twilight zone between day and night, perhaps would be a perpetually temperate ring bounded on one side by a cold dark vastness of hemi-global ice sheets and a vast realm of sweltering sauna lands and hot-tub oceans–something for every type of vacationer.

And one has to wonder what kind of weather patterns would develop on this schizoid super-Earth.

Such we can imagine. We don't know if Gliese 667 Cc has oceans, or what kind of an atmosphere—if any—it might possess. All we really know is its super-Earth status and location within its star's habitable zone.

Perhaps we'll learn other details in the future that will help us paint a more realistic picture of this exoplanet and get working on that travel brochure.

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Category: Astronomy, Blog

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Ben Burress

About the Author ()

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • trail runnin man

    Earth First! (we'll destroy the othher planets next)

    • Anon

      You think we're "destroying" Earth? Really? Would you rather live on Earth now, or live on Earth a million years ago? How about now, or pre-industrial revolution? Obviously the Earth is in BETTER condition for supporting human life in 2013 than it was in 1235AD, or 2000BC, or than it was during the time of the dinosaurs. Therefore, in terms of the standard of living the Earth provides for its human inhabitants, life here on Earth has gotten better, not worse. Given that, it's hard to see how any rational person would say we're "destroying" the Earth. We aren't "destroying" it, we're improving it.

      And second, your species might not get a chance to experience life on other worlds, or in space for that matter, if short-sighted people like you hinder the continued exploration of space in order to lavish more attention on your short-sighted environmental goals – and our civilization along with all the science, technology, philosophy, and the assortment of accumulated discoveries of thousands of years of human history is destroyed in the raging fires and explosions of nuclear war before it (and people) gets a real chance at getting off this rock!

      Don't misunderstand – some of the work of environmentalists is laudable, such as efforts to limit our exposure to toxic substances, heavy metals, carcinogens, and other things. However, to say that we should hold off on our exploration of space – and limit our ability to discover NEW Earths – and more resources – merely because our species hasn't lived up to your absurd expectations for environmental maintenance – is an excellent example of the illogical thinking displayed by far too many.

  • Anna Wang

    Hello. I am like a science freak, and exoplanets like these are very exciting. Hoping that we will find more worlds, and that I will set foot on a habitable planet day is overwhelming. P.S I think trail runnin man is slightly correct, but Anon is too!

  • salvadorean1980

    Interesting

  • Katy Perry

    this is really awesome im crying

    • Kelly Clarkson

      hey katy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! catch my breath

  • Goofy galllll

    '-' laawlz

  • Ali

    I think both of u are wright and I must admit i have an overwelming desire to explore other worlds a new age of exploration is app on us so we must imbrace it

  • Ali

    There is a way in which this planets hemispheres on both sides can be warm enough To support liquid water If there was enough water on the planet day side and it evaporated the wind wood be warm enough when it went to the night side and the solt will lower the melting point of the water

    Ps i'm sorry i didn't explain very well.

  • Lisa

    Logical error. Destroying earth in the long run and making earth habitable for the short term are not contradicting.

  • http://calabi.ru/ John

    Inhabited planets! awsome!

  • https://www.facebook.com/vegeta.saiyan9001 karwan saiyansi

    we need its name to be planet ( vegeta ) not gliese , because its like planet vegeta in Dragon Ball if you ever seen

  • http://www.earthfacts.com Earth Facts

    Scientist always trying to find another planet where the human life is possible they are working hard for that but the all things that makes life possible is not easy to find, habitable to life as we know it, at least, with conditions that are friendly to the presence of liquid water. These all are very necessary.

    • Science Facts

      Plus it's not that easy to adapt other than the environment the Earth has. We lived here for years and it's hard to change. All the discoveries our brothers discovered here on Earth will be affected to (probably will be forgotten). And it's also hard to make a new beginning on other planet.