Science & Faith
2/4/12 at 09:04 PM 4 Comments

Just Discovered: A Nearby Planet with Life-Friendly Traits. How Friendly?

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Carnegie Instit. / UCSC
Artistic visualization of the newly discovered planet in the foreground. It orbits the sun that is brightest in the background.

Did God create life on planets in other distant places in the universe?  The Bible is silent on this topic. God could have done it if he wanted.  Scientists have been searching for "habitable" planets (those suitable for life) for over a decade, and the best candidate to date was announced this week.  I hate to dampen your ET enthusiasm, but this "best candidate" for another habitable planet has some major problems. Read why below.

Welcome to my new blog: Science & Faith.  This is my first post.  Tell your friends and watch for future "Science & Faith" blogs here at CP.

Two days ago writer Denise Chow reported the discovery of a planet called GJ 667Cc, which orbits a star located 22 light years from us. There are only about 100 stars closer to us than this star that hosts GJ 667Cc. What is noteworthy about this discovery according to Ms. Chow and many others reporting on this newest addition to the 700 documented planets that exist outside our own solar system? Chow writes:

A potentially habitable alien planet — one that scientists say is the best candidate yet to harbor water, and possibly even life, on its surface — has been found around a nearby star.
"It's the holy grail of exoplanet research to find a planet around a star orbiting at the right distance so it's not too close where it would lose all its water and boil away, and not too far where it would all freeze," Steven Vogt, an astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz, told "It's right smack in the habitable zone — there's no question or discussion about it. It's not on the edge [of the habitable zone], it's right in there."

Thus far three planets have been located orbiting this host star called GJ 667C. These planets are appropriately called GJ 667Ca, GJ 667Cb, and GJ 667Cc (the last being the latest finding). The other two previously discovered planets in this solar system were already known to be the sorts of planets that are unsuitable for hosting life: GJ 667Cb is a rocky planet that is too close to the host star to have liquid water and GJ 667Ca is a gas giant like our Jupiter.

Today Guillermo Gonzalez, a leading astronomer who helped pioneer "habitable zone" astronomical research, commented on the significance of GJ 667Cc and the other components of this solar system:

Here are a couple important points about this particular [solar] system. First, the [three] planets orbit an M dwarf star. M dwarfs provide very poor environments for life. They show erratic brightness fluctuations, and they produce powerful flares with dangerous radiation. Planets in the habitable zone of an M dwarf will spin down fairly quickly, leading to a "tidally-locked" situation that leads to all sorts of problems. Second, terrestrial planets more massive than Earth are likely less habitable than Earth for several reasons. For instance, they will have less surface relief, which makes it less likely they will have dry land.

A tidally-locked planet is one that always faces its host sun with one particular hemisphere, forcing that half of the planet to perpetually bask in daylight and the opposite side to be destined for endless night (although in this case there are two other nearby stars that would make "night" less dark depending upon the orienation of all these celestial bodies). This is problematic for the conditions needed for complex life.

Since GJ 667Cc is at least 4.5 times more massive than Earth, its gravitational force at its surface is greater (everything weighs more there than on Earth), and as Dr. Gonzalez explains, it will have less surface relief (geographic highs and lows), which makes it less likely to have dry land if there is much water on the planet. This too reduces habitability features on such a planet.

Indeed, liquid water is just one of many features a planet must have to be suitable for complex life. Dr. Gonzalez refers to two other factors in his comment today, both of which indicated reduced habitability for the newly discovered planet. Likely other factors that are not suitable (or less suitable) for life on this planet will come to our attention as other astronomers investigate GJ 667Cc and its solar system further.

Intelligent design proponents Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards supply additional important background knowledge for evaluating discoveries like GJ 667Cc in their book The Privileged Planet. See this introduction to their book to get started. Also see additional comments about GJ 667Cc here.

Finally, to understand how incredibly unlikely it is to go from non-life to life without intelligent design (even on a superbly habitable planet like our own, which has liquid water and much more in its favor), see Stephen Meyer's book Signature in the Cell.

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