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Kepler-22b? What about the first first habitable planet?

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According to Wired, “For the first time, astronomers have found a planet smack in the middle of the habitable zone of its sunlike star.” What planet is it? Well, it depends on what article you are reading.

There’s a wonderful, exciting new story radiating far beyond the science portions of the internet and receiving heavy coverage. A newly discovered planet in the habitable zone of its star. We love such stories at TRC, and follow closely the expanding catalog of planets outside our solar system.

So it was a little strange to read the sentence from Wired today. Because I’ve read it before, in Wired.

Here’s Wired today, on Kepler-22b. “For the first time, astronomers have found a planet smack in the middle of the habitable zone of its sunlike star, where temperatures are good for life.”

And, here’s Wired on September 29, 2010, on Gliese-581g: ” Gliese 581g is the first planet found to lie squarely in its star’s habitable zone, where the conditions are right for liquid water.

This isn’t anything new, or particularly problematic. It just struck me in the brain as I read the story. More than anything, such reporting likely comes just as much from enthusiasm over new discoveries in space, which are increasing in pace and wonder, as it does from a lack of critical detail. The discovery of new planets, and questions of size, temperature, atmosphere, etc. takes time and precision and confirmation. And this is space, after all. Reporting is bound to jump the gun because we are talking about planets that could support life (maybe). And at the time, Gliese-581g was thought to be the first such discovery.

But for now, to solve the mystery fr those who do not follow such matters, it looks like Kepler-22b is the first habitable planet found. Unfortunately for the first-first habitable planet, Gliese-581g, well, she may have just never been there in the first place. Following up on the de-classification of an exoplanet from habitable to non-existent makes for much less interesting copy, and is thus much more likely not to get covered in the non-science corners of the internet.

For more on Kepler-22b, look at any news source on the internet. Specifically, as usual, I recommend Bad Astronomy for a good rundown of the new, actually confirmed first discovered planet in the habitable zone of its star.

**UPDATE: Even when I think I’m covering my bases, there is still trouble in the “first” notation being given to Kepler-22b. I’m not an astrophysicist or astronomer, but my link above update his post thusly: “I have been informed that this is NOT the first planet seen in the habitable zone of another star, but the first seen by Kepler, and moreover the first that is not a gas giant.”

Sigh. Just goes to show the difficulty of such descriptions.

Written by Christopher ZF

December 5, 2011 at 16:14