Extrasolar planet may be able to support life

“European astronomers say they have found the first Earth-sized planet beyond this solar system with temperatures mild enough to allow liquid water — a crucial step toward answering whether our cradle of life is unique in the universe.

The planet circles the star Gliese 581, which at 20 light years away is among the 100 stars closest to Earth. Dubbed Gliese 581c, the planet orbits very close to its star — closer than Mercury is to our sun. But astronomers with the European Southern Observatory say the star is dim enough that average temperatures on the planet would fall in the range of an ordinary Chicago spring day.

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If the planet has water — a big unknown — its size and climate could make it habitable, experts said. The planet appears to be about 50 percent larger than Earth and has five times more mass, making it one of the smallest far-off planets ever detected.

The conditions look promising enough that officials with the California-based SETI Institute, which looks for signs of radio communication from alien civilizations, said they hope to give the planet a fresh look this summer. Previous radio observations of Gliese 581 in the 1990s turned up nothing unusual.” (Orlando Sentinel )