If new ‘Earth-like’ planet harbours life, should we communicate with it?

Scott Sutherland
Finding Another Earth: How Will Scientists Confirm It Exists?
This artist's illustration represents the variety of planets being detected by NASA's Kepler spacecraft. Scientists now say that one in six stars hosts an Earth-size planet.

The term 'Earth-like' has seen a lot of use in the past couple of years, as various telescopes locate more and more planets orbiting other stars, but a new discovery announced at the 221st American Astronomical Society meeting truly deserves the title.

This newly-discovered world is only 1.5 times the size of Earth (a so-called 'super-Earth'), its year is 242 days long, and it orbits within the habitable zone of a star very similar to our own Sun, which means that it most certainly has liquid water. Now, that's not a perfect match to our world, but compared to the other planets discovered so far, it's a near-twin.

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The planet's name, for now, is KOI-172.02 (Kepler Object of Interest). Once its existence can be confirmed by a ground-based telescope, it will be renamed, possibly based on the (as-of-yet-unreleased) name of its parent star.

"This was very exciting because it's our first habitable-zone super Earth around a Sun-type star," said Natalia Batalha, a co-investigator for NASA's Kepler Space Telescope mission.

"It's a big deal," said astrophysicist Mario Livio, who works at the Space Telescope Science Institute, according to Space.com. "It's definitely a good candidate for life."

Given that astronomers had only just predicted that they would find a truly Earth-like planet sometime this year, this is a spectacular find. I'm really looking forward to this being confirmed so that we can learn more about its composition and, more importantly (to me anyway), its distance from us.

Sure, we're a long ways off from figuring out any kind of practical interstellar travel, but just think about it: if it turns out to be only a short distance away from us (relatively speaking), and further examination shows that it has a very good chance of having life, think of the potential for sending a message there! There's risks involved with that, certainly, but there has been some suggestion that game-theory and the "prisoner's dilemma" scenario offer some key insight into this — that we should take the risk to send out messages (although only a few, and very selectively), because the potential benefits far outweighs the risks involved.

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This will all depend on where this planet is, though — it could be hundreds of light years away. However, if it was only 10 light years away, or maybe 20, it could be worth the risk. It would take years to receive any reply — if a reply was ever to come — but the rewards of hearing that reply would be incredible. Perhaps collaborating with an alien species could give us insights into the universe that change our thinking and bring about the technological advances that would take us to the stars. Or, maybe it would just be enough to know that we're not alone and that we have some galactic pen-pals to exchange letters with.

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