Tue, Jun 28, 2005 - Page 16 News List

A small planet points to big possibilities

The discovery of a small planet orbiting a red dwarf star indicatesthe possible worlds where life could flourish -- or already does

By Seth Shostak  /  THE GUARDIAN , London

This leads to a startling possibility, because red dwarfs have a characteristic that distinguishes them from stars like the sun: longevity. Small stars, like small dogs, live longer. Our own sun has been boiling away for nearly 5 billion years; it has another 5 billion to go before it starts to shudder and die.

But a red dwarf would offer much more time for development, 100 billion years or more, because these dim bulbs are parsimonious with their fuel.

Ancient civilizations?

If life, and occasionally intelligent life, exists elsewhere, then the most ancient civilizations are surely encamped around the oldest stars; and the oldest that still shine are red dwarfs. Of course, 14 billion years after the big bang, even the most aged of red dwarfs are still teenagers. But if some have planets on which biology bloomed early, that life has a history that is two or three times as long as the span between Earth's earliest microorganisms and the ascent of man.

Such an ancient society, with far more time to exploit science, might easily be able to betray its existence. No, we haven't found evidence for such civilizations yet, but if we do, it's conceivable that they developed on a world of which the rock found around Gliese 876 is merely a first example. That overheated planet might be the first signpost of myriad worlds where life could flourish.

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