- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2006

Beta CVn of Canes Venatici, the constellation of the Hound Dogs, could nurture the ultimate cosmic real estate — another Earth-like planet, at least according to Margaret Turnbull, an astronomer with the Carnegie Institute of Washington.

Of the 17,129 stars that could prove life-friendly in this part of the universe, beta CVn tops the list of the five stars best able to foster a habitable planet. Beta CVn is 153 trillion miles away and the most sunlike of the four other finalists gleaned from the massive list of possibilities through strict scientific criteria.

“These are places I’d want to live if God were to put our planet around another star,” Ms. Turnbull said.

She presented her findings about the so-called “habstars” during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Sunday.

But she has no particular advice for Earthlings should her theories prove right.

“There is no formal policy of what to do if we discover extraterrestrial life,” Ms. Turnbull said, describing her top choices as sun-centric. “We are intentionally biased towards stars that are like the sun.”

Indeed, all five of the habstars have marked similarities to our own sun. The quintet have peaceful orbits and healthy iron content in their atmospheres and are at least 3 billion years old — three conditions required for the formation of a rocky, Earth-like companion planet.

None has a particularly catchy name, however.

Along with beta CVn, there’s also HD 10397, HD 211415 and 18 Sco — tucked away in the Scorpio constellation and described as an “almost identical twin” to our sun. Then there’s 51 Pegasus. Swiss and American astronomers discovered it had a companion planet in orbit 11 years ago and have been watching it ever since.

The California-based Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, a private, nonprofit research organization founded in 1984 to scan the universe for promising radio signals, has vowed to train its telescopes on the five stars.

Despite the hubbub, the group has sent out its own distress signal. There’s not much federal money available for the study of astrobiology — life in space — said Baruch Blumberg, formerly head of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute and a SETI trustee.

In a Feb. 15 letter, Mr. Blumberg and SETI Chief Executive Officer Thomas Pierson advised 900 scientists and educators that Congress plans to cut NASA’s astrobiology budget in half next year. Both consider the astrobiological field “the primary science” of President Bush’s two-year-old “Vision for Space Exploration” and have asked supporters to contact lawmakers and protest the cutbacks.

In recent years, NASA had planned two missions designed to seek out life in space. Both have been tabled. The Terrestrial Planet Finder has been deferred indefinitely, according to the agency’s 2007 budget, while the SIM Planet Quest has been delayed until at least 2015.

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