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Goldilocks, red dwarfs and techno-babble

Astronomers at the University of California Santa Cruz and the Carnegie Institution of Washington revealed the claim of an Earth-like planet there that could host life.

"Our findings offer a very compelling case for a potentially habitable planet," said astronomer Steven Vogt of U.C. Santa Cruz in a widely quoted news comment about the discovery. "The fact that we were able to detect this planet so quickly and so nearby tells us that planets like this must be really common."

It's not the first time "Goldilocks planets" have been announced orbiting Gliese 581. In recent years, several Gliese planets have been suggested as being Earthlike.

While the romance of more than one Earthlike planet in the so-called Goldilocks zone around Gliese 581 is appealing at first glance, the reality is that red dwarf stars can display wildly fluctuating levels of deadly ultraviolet radiation. How this fact can be reconciled with the fragility of life as we know it, which requires a stable parent star more like our Sun, is rarely mentioned in the headlines.

What's in the Sky: Sky & Telescope magazine has posted a list of easy to find stars with exoplanets (some with "Goldilocks zones") that you can view with the naked eye or a telescope. See: www.skyandtelescope.com/skytel/beyondthepage/101465309.html. Of course you won't be able to see any of these exoplanets, but you can see stars that may be home to the next Earth!

Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., was a science writer at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. He is a current member of the NASA-JPL Solar System Ambassador program. He is a recipient of the U.S. Civil Air Patrol's Gen. Charles E. 'Chuck' Yeager Aerospace Education Achievement Award.

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