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Friday, December 19, 2008

Expanding the Search for Extraterrestrials

This week came news from the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco that scientists are broadening their search for extraterrestrial life to "super-Earths"—giant, cold, icy planets (very little like Earth, in fact) that are seen on the outskirts of about one-third of solar systems. In most cases, the search for life has involved looking for planets in another solar system's "habitable zone," the distance from a star that provides temperatures at which water stays liquid. But the scientists believe super-Earths, which are in the farther reaches of these solar systems, might have an internal heat source that allows liquid water to form under the ice.
"It turns out that if super-Earths are young enough, massive enough, or have a thick atmosphere, they could have liquid water under the ice or even on the surface," says Scott Gaudi, a professor of astronomy at Ohio State University. "And we will almost certainly be able to detect these habitable planets if they exist."
It's too early to speculate on what kind of life (biologically simple? intelligent?) might be found on these super-Earths or other planets, but over on Counterbalance, systematic theologian Ted Peters (who, earlier this year, released the "Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey of 2008") speculates on the theological implications of possible contact with these different types of extraterrestrials, a branch of theology he calls "astrotheology" or "exotheology." —Heather Wax