looking for life in all the right places

Now if I were an alien, where would I be? According to astrobiologist Maggie Turnbull of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the best bet would be 37 Gem, the 37th brightest star in the constellation of Gemini, some 42 light years away. Turnbull is choosing targets for Terrestrial Planet Finder, NASA’s deep space telescope project, which will search for earthlike worlds outside our solar system and is scheduled to launch in the next decade. Turnbull has narrowed down the 5,000 stars or so that lie within 100 light years of Earth to a short list of 30 that could hold worlds capable of supporting life. One of the things she looked at was the amount of heavy metals present (more metals means more chance of rocky planets) and she eliminated stars that were too young, telling New Scientist: “On Earth, it was two billion years before enough oxygen built up to support complex life, so we won’t look at stars that are less than a few billion years old.” The star 37 Gem is at the top of her list because it is most like our solar system: “The closer we look, the more we realize how [most] other stars are different from the sun.”

This news brief appeared in the Random Data column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 10/14/2003.
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