Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles If things don't work out on this planet... Or if our itch to explore becomes unbearable at some point in the future... Astronomers have recently found out what kind of galactic real estate might be available to us. We'll have to develop advanced transport to land there, 20 light years away.... But that's for later. The question right now: is it worth the trip? The destination is a star that you can't see with your naked eye, in the southern constellation Libra, called Gliese 581. Identified over 40 years ago by the German astronomer Wilhelm Gliese, it's a red dwarf with 31% of the Sun's mass... and only 1.3% of its luminosity. Until recently, the so-called M Stars like Gliese 581 flew below the radar of planet hunters. They give off so little energy that a planet would have to orbit dangerously close just to get enough heat. Now, these unlikely realms are beginning to show some promise... as their dim light yields to precision technologies... ...as well as supercomputers... honed in the battle to understand global changes on this planet... Earth. Will we now begin to detect signs of alien life? Or will these worlds, and the galaxy itself, turn out to be lifeless... and Earth, just a beautiful, lonely aberration? To some, like astronomer and author Carl Sagan, the sheer number and diversity of stars makes it, as he said, "far more likely that the universe is brimming over with life." This so-called "many worlds" view can be traced back to ancient observers... in China, India, Greece and Egypt. The Qur'an, the Talmud, and many Hindu texts all imagined a universe full of living beings. In the 16th Century, this view got a boost from astronomer and mathematician Nikolas Copernicus... who came to believe that Earth is not the center of the universe, but revolves around the Sun. Seven decades after Copernicus, Galileo Galilei used his newly developed telescope to show that our Sun was just one among countless other stars in the universe. By the modern era, the "many worlds" view held sway in scientific circles. A variety of thinkers considered what and who inhabited worlds beyond our own. From Martians desperate to get off their planet... to alien invaders intent on launching pre-emptive strikes against ours... or simple life forms on an evolutionary track to complexity. But other thinkers have been struck by a different view. The Greek philosophers Aristotle and Ptolemy believed that humans and Earth are unique. With the spread of Christianity, this Ptolemaic system became widely accepted. The latest variation on this theme is what's called the "Rare Earth" hypothesis. It holds that Earth and sophisticated life were the result of fortuitous circumstances that may not be easy to find again in our galaxy. Does the current search for planets shed light on this debate... sending it in one direction or the other? So far, our only good reference for recognizing an Earth-like planet is... Earth. It does have some fortuitous characteristics... it's dense, it's rocky - with a complex make-up of minerals and organic compounds - and it has lots and lots of water. It's also got a nearly circular orbit around the Sun, at a distance that allows liquid water to flow... not too close and not too far away, in the so-called "Habitable Zone." That's defined as the range of distance from a parent star that a planet would need to maintain surface temperatures between the freezing and boiling points of water. Of course, that depends on the size of the planet, the make-up of its atmosphere, and a host of other factors. And whether the parent star is large; medium like the Sun; or small. Some scientists also believe we live in a "Galactic Habitable Zone." We're close enough to the galactic center to be infused with heavy elements generated by countless stellar explosions over the eons... But far enough away from deadly gamma radiation that roars out of the center. If there is a galactic habitable zone... it's thought to lie 26,000 light years from the center... about where we are... give or take about 6,000 light years. According to one estimate, only about 5% of the stars in our galaxy fall within it. But even out here - in the galactic suburbs - there are hazards. Some researchers have linked mass extinctions in the past to the Sun's passage through one of the spiral arms, where other sources of dangerous gamma radiation lie in wait. Somehow, though, we've made it through asteroid impacts, climate changes, solar eruptions and everything else the galaxy has thrown at us. Now we want to know... are there kindred spirits, somewhere out there, to share our survival stories with? This image shows the single biggest obstacle faced by planet hunters. We're looking at Earth, as photographed by the Voyager spacecraft, from a distance of 3.7 billion miles. Our mighty world occupies only about one tenth of one pixel. Try seeing something this small at hundreds of thousands of times that distance. And try seeing it through the bright glare of a star. Faced with these obstacles, astronomers have developed ways to see them indirectly. Since 1995, Swiss and American teams have discovered over 400 planets by looking for subtle shifts in the motion of their parent stars. Here's what they'd see if they used this technique ... ...to monitor our Sun for a period of 30 years beginning in 1990. The sun would wobble, or dance about, due to the gravitational tug of planets orbiting it. The technique for detecting this wobble is so exquisitely developed that astronomers can see movements down to a meter per second: human walking speed. But there's still a ways to go... Earth causes our Sun to move at less than a tenth that speed. By analyzing the complexity of this movement... They have been able to tease out the sizes and distances of the different planets tugging on the star. Initially, they detected huge gas giants, many of which have wildly elliptical orbits that bring them in close to their stars before driving them way out. Unfortunately, the giant's gravity would eventually fling smaller Earth-sized planets out of the solar system. An exception is the star 55 Cancri, where astronomers detected a Jupiter-sized planet with a nearly circular orbit. That's a good sign. Our Jupiter is thought to have afforded Earth some protection by scooping up destructive asteroids. Beyond occupying a desirable location in the Habitable Zone of its parent star... it helps if a planet has the right chemistry. Our Earth and solar system were likely born within a crowded scene... like the Trifid nebula here... lashed by winds from hot giant stars... and blasted by a violent explosion: a supernova. Nuclear burning within the core of large stars is where most of the heavy elements - from iron and oxygen, to carbon and calcium - are generated. As our Sun formed at the center of an immense dusty disk, these elements became concentrated in planets. Some of the most important elements in the search for life have now been detected, because of the chance alignment of Earth and a solar system 63 light years away that astronomers refer to as HD 189733. The Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes together caught a planet whipping around this star every two Earth days. This is one sizzling planet... with surface temperatures up around 900 degrees Celsius. The planet, tagged HD 189733-B, is so hot that a vapor trail follows in its wake. Starlight passing through this trail allowed scientists to detect carbon dioxide, methane gas... and water in its atmosphere. Then there's the sun-like star HD 209458, visible with binoculars, 150 light years away. It has a planet, known as a "hot Jupiter." It's hot because it's close-in: as near as 7 million kilometers from the star... Compared to our planet Mercury, 46 million kilometers out from our Sun...or the Earth, 146 million. Scientists estimate that stellar winds are blowing some 10,000 tons of material every second off the surface of this hot gas giant. How long before it gets reduced to a shriveled core? That's just what happened to the star called CoRot-7. Astronomers spotted a planet slightly larger than Earth... and just about as dense. But because little CoRoT-7b is so close to its parent star, it's most likely covered in molten lava. If these planets are too close to their stars to harbor life... many of the others discovered so far are too far away and too large. Like the one orbiting a star the ancient Arabs called Fomulhaut - - meaning: "the mouth of the fish." It's just 25 light years away and was the first "exoplanet" to be seen directly. Using Hubble, scientists blocked out Fomulhaut's glare and found a planet orbiting about 10 times farther out than Saturn. It would take 872 Earth years to make just one orbit. The brightness of this planet suggests that it's huge and probably surrounded by a dusty disk. Astronomers are seeing hints of the diversity of worlds imagined by the ancients... but still only scant evidence of anything resembling Earth. Still, there's one class of stars that had, until recently, been overlooked. The M-stars are the most numerous in our galaxy... around 76% of the total. They are often called failed stars... because not enough mass fell together as they were forming to fuel the intense nuclear fusion that burns in stars like our sun. To be in the "Life Zone" of one of these dwarf stars, a planet would have to be very close. Unfortunately, because these small stars spin quickly when they're young, they are like electrical dynamos, with intense magnetic fields that generate dangerous flares. If a planet manages to survive these flares, it may have to endure another handicap. In close like this, it's likely to become gravitationally locked to its parent star - just like our Moon is to Earth - with only one side ever facing the star. One side scorched... the other frozen. Is there any hope? On Earth, we know that the unevenness of solar heating, due to the day/night cycle, leads to oceanic and atmospheric circulation patterns that redistribute the heat and equalize temperatures. A computer simulation performed by NASA scientists showed that a tidally locked planet could, in fact, develop circulation patterns like this. In the computer model, a cloud cover developed on the light side: keeping temperatures down and air pressures high. The result: winds that circled the planet, redistributing enough heat to keep the rate of freezing down. That's one reason these M stars are on planet hunters' radars these days. Another reason is that planet hunting has taken a leap forward. At the European Southern Observatory in the mountains of Chile, an instrument that specializes in looking for solar wobbles has come on line. HARPS - short for "High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher" - has been on a planet finding tear. At a recent conference, scientists announced 30 new planets discovered with this instrument. Among its most promising targets... Gliese 581, that inconspicuous red dwarf in Libra. Four planets have been detected so far... Planet E is the lightest exoplanet discovered to date, at 1.9 times the mass of Earth. But it's so close to its parent star that its orbit takes only 3.15 days. It's likely a larger version of Mercury, scorched by its sun and riddled with craters. Planet B is close too, and weighs 16 times what Earth does. Planet C, at 5 Earth masses, lies just inside the Habitable Zone... ... while Planet D, at 7 Earth masses, lies on its outside edge.