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Are there neighbours over the cosmic fence?

Just found out about this through the astrophysics grapevine.  It’s a scientific paper that’s been accepted for publication in the serious journal Astronomy & Astrophysics (A&A) in the coming weeks.  Here’s a link to the paper itself:

http://www.eso.org/public/archives/releases/sciencepapers/eso1214/eso1214a.pdf

As usual, it has a fairly innocuous title.  However, if news gets out to the (mostly) nutters in the UFO and related communities they’ll go mad for it.

The authors of the paper have spent quite some time doing a thorough survey of low-mass M (i.e. red) dwarf stars for signs of planets, using the HARPS set up at the European Southern Observatory.  We’ve known for a long time that such dwarf stars are by far the most common in our Galaxy, and in our solar neighbourhood.  What they find is that, in addition, these stars have a very high planet-hit.  Furthermore, around 40% of these dwarf stars have Earth-like (i.e. rocky, roughly Earth-sized) planets orbiting their parent star in the habitable zone.  As there are an estimated 160 billion M-dwarves in our Galaxy, extrapolating these statistics means that these stars must be harbouring around 60-70 billion habitable planets – just in our own Galaxy.  And looking closer to home, within 30 light years of our solar system there are roughly 250 M-dwarves, meaning that, according to these findings, there are about 100 habitable planets within 30 light years of us.

And any advanced creatures/beings who happen to have developed on such a planet in orbit about a red dwarf star will likely have developed large eyes for gathering lots of light at the red/IR end of the spectrum – just the type of appearance the UFO nuts speak of.  Makes yer think, dunnit!

One balancing factor is that the habitable zones of these stars will be much closer to the parent dwarf star, and anyway such stars tend to be a bit more unstable, so whether the conditions on such a planet would be ideal for life is another debate.

I don’t think we’re being “visited” due to the lack of decent evidence, but I’ve always objected to those so-called scientists who claim that if life exists elsewhere it would be too far away from us to come over for a visit.  For a long time now I’ve been of the Michio Kaku viewpoint that if an alien civilisation was even 1000 years in advance of us (a drop in the evolutionary ocean) we wouldn’t have a CLUE what they were capable of.  (Just go and wave your iPad at King Arthur and tell me how he reacts!)  And in that recent New Scientist there’s an article about how some researchers have found that creating, maintaining and even traversing wormholes might be more possible than we think if the universe ticks according to M-theory (i.e. string theory) rather than according to old Einstein alone.  But after this recent ESO/HARPS work, it seems we potentially have a veritable population of habitable planets in our very cosmic backyard.

Maybe we’d better pop the kettle on after all!

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