Via The Bad Astronomer, there is news tonight out of the European Southern Observatory that the first possibly Earth-like extra-solar planet may have been found! Phil has more:
Why is this planet important? Well, one of the major goals of science right now is to find out if life has arisen and evolved elsewhere in the Universe. Up until 1995 we weren’t even sure if any other stars had planets! Now we know of hundreds, and as the technology gets better, we can find smaller and smaller ones. We’re right on the verge of being able to find ones just like Earth. And while of course we cannot know if this newly found planet has life or not, it’s our best bet yet!
All of the other planets detected so far (and as Phil says it's only been slightly more than a decade since we found the very first one!) have been massive giants, completely unsuited to life as we know it. This world around Gliese 581, however, is the right temperature to hold liquid water, which as far as we know is the one absolutely essential ingredient for organic life.
It is not yet known for sure what this planet is like, and it's still possible that after investigation it does not actually hold liquid water after all. Discovery at the very edges of our knowledge are always contingent, vulnerable to refutation and difficult to prove. But even the possibility is thrilling to anyone who's stared at the night sky and wondered:
"Are we alone? Is there other life out there, around some distant star?"
We probably won't know the answer to that for a long time, but at last it's looking like we might just have the tools to start to figure it out.
Damn, science is cool!