Discovery of 'Goldilocks' planet excites scientists

This undated handout artist rendering provided by Lynette Cook, National Science Foundation, shows a new planet, right. Astronomers have found a planet that is in the Goldilocks zone -- just right for life. Not too hot, not too cold. Not too far from its sun, not too close. And it is near Earth _ relatively speaking, at 120 trillion miles. It also makes scientists think that these examples of habitable planets are far more common than they thought. (AP Photo/Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation)

September 30, 2010 7:26:24 PM PDT
The discovery of a new planet has astronomers talking with renewed excitement. After 11 years of looking, a team of scientists have discovered a planet in what they call the "habitable zone." This new planet is three times the mass of earth and circles a star called Gliese 581.

"This is really the first Goldilocks planet, the first planet that is roughly the right size and just the right distance to have liquid water on the surface," Paul Bulter of the Carnegie Institute of Washington said.

Liquid water is considered to be the key to life.

UC Santa Cruz Professor Steven Vogt says the possibilities are endless. He says the planet he helped discover does not rotate thus the bright side can be as hot as 160 degrees and the cold, dark side can drop to 25 degrees below zero, but there is a sweet spot. Dr. Vogt says

"So there's a great range of ecologitude that will create a lot of different niches for different kind of life to evolve stablely," Vogt said.

At the SETI Institute in Mountain View, the mission is to explore and understand the origin and prevalence of life in the universe. Thursday, Jill Tarter, the director of the Center for SETI Research, said she views this discovery as wonderful.

"We are heading into a time in which discoveries like this will come at a much faster pace," she said. "It's wonderful for people to know they can explore the question 'Are we here alone?' and be closer to scientific answers."