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Alien Life Forms

14 Dec

Gliese 581 showing its terminator belt, the stripe between light and dark.

Life adapts. Life changes to cope with its environment. Up until now, only Earth was known to support life. A recent discovery may challenge this assumption. A new planet has been discovered that is neither too hot nor too cold for water to exist. This, along with an atmosphere, makes it a prime location for life. The new planet has been (anticlimactically ) named Gliese (GLEE’ zuh) 581g after the star it orbits, 20 light-years away in the constellation Libra.  What kind of life would exist in such a place? Jaime conjectures about possible life forms. — Chris

Before you can understand life on Gliese 581g you must understand the conditions of this planet. This alien world is like a fraternal twin to earth. It is relatively the same distance from the sun, except it is three to four times the size of earth. But the bizarre thing is that it has a 37-day year; it rotates around its sun every 37 earth days.  Oddly, it never spins on its axis.  Like our moon, one side always stays dark and while the other faces the sun. That would mean it must have other large planets or close-by stars giving it a speed boost. There are perhaps oceans around the planet, but life in these oceans would probably exist along the line between light and dark, the “terminator belt,” where temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold.

There are two possible ways for this planet to rotate.  One way is like our moon, where the sides always stay the same — one light and one dark. There is also the possibility that the light and dark sides would alternate every half-year (about 18 to 19 earth days) as the planet circles its sun. The most likely situation (the one like our moon) would make life easier to exist because the organisms would stay in one spot and never need to move. Also, this moon-like condition would make the light side hospitable for a few weeks in the winter. The life on this planet might be small- to medium-sized, perhaps some bug-eyed aquatic reptile or sea bird.

Perhaps the life is more primitive, but I doubt it, and this is why:  This planet is three to four times larger than Earth, and it is perfectly round, which indicates that it is quite old.  There are two possibilities how this planet could have formed:  In the first scenario, asteroids could have collided together, causing a gigantic lumpy sphere.  Over time, gravity would keep pulling it in, until it was a perfect sphere.  In the second scenario, the sun would have rings around it, much like Saturn, and eventually gravity would pull the lumpy spheres into a perfect ball.  In order for Gliese 581g to be so round, under either condition, it would be old enough for life to have evolved quite far.

But the flip-side scenario would be completely different.  If the planet did alternate which side faced the sun every 18 or 19 days, the life forms would be different.  If the zone between hot and cold moved, the life would have to be constantly moving around the planet.  It would have to be more mobile.  It would help if it were small and fast because, the smaller it was, the less friction it would have between itself and the atmosphere and the water.  Also, if it had to constantly move, it would have less time to eat and grow.  Alien life forms on such a planet might be extremely small and fast in order to keep up with the terminator belt.   They would most likely be small fish or tiny flying creatures.  Any life would benefit from being cold-blooded, so it wouldn’t waste energy trying to keep itself warm. In this scenario life would be under constant strain.

Of course like our planet, on Gliese 581g, it is adapt or die, so on this distant and somewhat inhospitable planet, new species are always ready to bloom.

— Jaime

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