“Goldilocks Planet” May Not Exist

Not too long ago, a commenter asked about a “Goldilocks Planet” that had recently been discovered by Steven Vogt and his colleagues. The term refers to a planet that is thought to be close enough to its star to be warm, but not so close that it is unbearably hot. In other words, it is supposed to have a temperature that is “just right” for the existence of life.

Steven Vogt and his colleagues thought they had found such a planet in Gliese 581g. It is supposed to orbit a red dwarf (Gliese 581) with a period of 37 days. While this puts it very close to its star, Vogt and his team think it is hospitable to life because the red dwarf is cool compared to the sun.

In response to the commenter, I expressed my skepticism, not because I have a problem with the idea of extraterrestrial life, but because astronomers have been wrong in their assignment of “Goldilocks” status before. In addition, even if the planet is at the right distance from its star, there are a host of other conditions necessary for a planet to be hospitable to life.

Well, now there is another reason to be skeptical. The planet may not exist!

Planets outside our solar system are not usually observed directly. Instead, they are found because they cause the star they orbit to ‘wobble.’ The wobble in the star’s motion can be analyzed, and from those data, certain characteristics of the planet can be deduced. Using this method, four planets had been discovered orbiting Gliese 581 (planets b- e), but Vogt and his colleagues claim to have found two more, one of which is the “Goldilocks Planet” (planet g). At an International Astronomical Union symposium in Italy, however, another team of astronomers led by Francesco Pepe analyzed more data on the star’s motion, and they say they cannot find evidence for either of the planets that Vogt’s team found.

Why the discrepancy between the two groups? Well, the ‘wobbles’ produced by the planets are small, and it takes a lot of observations to make sure what you interpret as a ‘wobble’ isn’t just random noise. Vogt’s team thought they had distinguished the wobbles from the noise, but Pepe’s team couldn’t find them.

Who’s right? It is hard to say, but my bet is that Pepe’s team is right, since they are working with more data. Regardless of who is right, however, this story illustrates how skeptical you should be when it comes to stories about new scientific discoveries. Despite the fact that some news agencies breathlessly reported the exciting discovery of another planet that might support life, it turns out that the planet itself might not even exist!

16 thoughts on ““Goldilocks Planet” May Not Exist”

  1. Who is to say that extraterrestrial life need necessarily be carbon & water based? Maybe I have Transformer’s on the Brain syndrome, but is there any reason why a Mercury, Jupiter, or even Pluto type planet (/-oid) could not host life of some quite different variety to ours?

    1. Josiah, I am a big science fiction fan. However, until we know of another viable way for a life form to exist, a non-carbon-based life form belongs steadfastly in the realm of science fiction, not science. Of course, there is a great little tongue-in-cheek documentary called “How William Shatner Changed the World” that chronicles things in science fiction that actually came true. Thus, it is certainly possible that life could exist in another form, but if we are looking for life somewhere else in the universe, it is easiest to concentrate on the kind of life that we KNOW exists.

  2. Hi Doc

    The whole SETI movement and the search for habitable planets is hilarious. There have been millions, if not billions, of dollars spent on this enterprise with the huge return of nothing. Absolutely nothing.

    For Vogt to state that he is 100% sure that life would be found on this planet is utterly ridiculous. I wonder if he has changed his story now that the very existence of the planet is in doubt?

    1. Michael, I am not sure I agree with you on the SETI thing. While I agree that it has not found life, it has actually made some technological advances. It pioneered the concept of distributed computing, for example. Also, I think it has advanced the technology of pattern recognition.

      I know other websites have quoted Vogt as saying that he is 100% sure that life exists on the planet. That’s a silly statement, of course. According to the New Scientist article I linked, Vogt doesn’t think Pepe’s data is reliable enough to rule out the planet’s existence. Thus, I expect his certainty is still intact.

  3. Hey Dr. Wile,

    have you read C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy? If so, what did you think of Lewis treatment on the subject of extraterrestrial life (well, it’s only in the first two books of the trilogy that the main character goes to another planet, but those first two do have extraterrestrials in them.) I’ve always thought that if God wanted to make life elsewhere, why not? Also, if there were life elsewhere and it even remotely resembled life on Earth, with the farther distance to go the less likelihood of it having just occurred by random chance.

    1. Ben, I have read Lewis’s space trilogy. I am not a real fan of his work (including the Chronicles of Narnia). I guess I was spoiled by other science fiction and fantasy writers before I read him. Also, I am not a fan of his philosophy, either, so that probably colors my reading of his other works. I do, however, agree with you that God might very well create life on other planets. Indeed, I have always thought the majority of evolutionists and creationists are backwards” on the subject. Most materialist evolutionists think there is life all over the universe. However, if you really need to believe life formed as the result of naturalistic processes, you should be absolutely stunned that it happened even once, since the odds seem impossibly low. To think it occurred anywhere else in the universe would be truly absurd. However, if you are a creationist (or even theistic evolutionist), you should have no problem with God creating life lots of different places in the universe. Nevertheless, creationists seem by and large to be against the possibility.

      I am not sure what you mean by “with the farther distance to go the less likelihood of it having just occurred by random chance.” I do agree with you, however, that extraterrestrial life that resembles life on earth would make the materialistic argument even weaker.

  4. What I mean by, “with the farther distance to go the less likelihood of it having just occurred by random chance.” is in reference to the notion of panspermia™ whereby the assumption is that life evolved from non-life and spread itself across the universe via comets or aliens. If such were to be the case, just supposing it were, life would still be confined to the maximum amount of distance able to be traveled in the allotted time since the supposed abiogenesis. So, life’s reach would be finite. If life were to be found on other planets in other star systems and such, then the further out one goes the less likely it would be to be similar to life on Earth. That’s the general idea I think would pertain to the matter.

    Consider in Star Trek or Stargate where all the aliens are basically humans with pointy ears or ridged foreheads, most planets having trees and looking like Canada, etc. If the evolutionary scenario were to be true, these situations would look near completely different I’d think.

    1. Thanks for explaining that, Ben. I had actually never considered the distance factor with panspermia. I guess I figure any alien that can make life probably has a convenient way of traveling across the universe. However, you are probably right.

      You are also probably right about how unreasonable the portrayal of life is in shows like Star Trek. There are some better ones out there, however. Did you ever see Babylon 5? It did a much better job portraying aliens in an evolutionary scenario.

  5. That is an interesting point, but it raises the question of what is “remotely similar”. After all the evolutionist must believe that the woodlouse, squid, eagle, and manatee all came from the same source on earth.

    1. I don’t want to put words into Ben’s mouth, Josiah, but I think he is talking about the basic chemical makeup – not body plan, etc. If life on another planet is carbon-based, with heavy emphasis on protein chemistry, then that is a very similar life form, regardless of what it looks like. If the genetic code is roughly the same, then it is even more similar, once again regardless of body plan.

  6. I had watched some of the Babylon 5 episodes. The space station seemed a bit more realistic with the artificial gravity being due to centrifugal force rather than some form of “graviton generator” though. Have you ever noticed that, with the exception of, I think it was the movie Star Trek 5, that even with using the supposed “graviton generators” that ships in Star Trek, Star Wars, Stargate, etc, retain artificial gravity even when the electricity is shut off? It would be fine if the ships were in rotational motion in the vacuum of space, but for consistency they ought to portray the loss of power to affect the “gravity generators”. Such as, they ought to be floating around rather than still having 9.83 m/sec^2 acceleration.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly, Ben. The entire ship can be coming to pieces around them, but the “graviton generators” are still 100% functional. Why can’t they make the rest of the ship out of whatever those graviton generators are made of?

  7. As per similarity, I was considering the chemistry of life. The double-helix shape of DNA, for example, is a very specific shape. Evolutionists may well use it to claim common ancestry for that reason, however if life were to spontaneously generate on some other planet light-years away, it would be doubtful that it would have the same chemical geometries as on Earth, to say the least. If it were the only possible formation for hereditary information to be stored, that would be a different case, but I doubt it is the only possible formation of biochemical information storage system, although I personally can’t say for certain.

  8. I don’t know Dr Wile,

    Perhaps if they made the entire ship out of the material of the “graviton generators”, lets call it “Super-osmium”, perhaps they’d have to make a movie where a ship implodes on itself and threatens to consume the entire universe or something like that. It would be a likely plot for a sequel to the last Star Trek movie produced anyway.

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