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Earthlings will surely thrill at finding their planetary double:
Our calculation suggests the discovery could happen next year.
In 2010, one new exoplanet appeared every four days or so; by the end of the year, the total topped 500. But in September, a truly exceptional find punctuated this steady drumbeat of discovery: the first alien planet that could host life on its surface.
Gliese 581 g, spotted by a team led by Steven Vogt of the University of California, Santa Cruz, inhabits a "Goldilocks" zone around its host star, a band just warm enough to boast liquid water. At 3.1 to 4.3 times the mass of Earth, it is also small enough that it should be made mostly of rock. Although a second team of astronomers failed to find signs of Gliese 581 g in their data, if its existence is confirmed, it will be the most habitable exoplanet yet found.
In September, plotting the index of each planet against the date of its discovery and extrapolating the resulting curves predicted that an Earth-like planet would be found by May 2011. Two weeks later, such a planet - Gliese 581 g - was spotted although the detection is awaiting further confirmation. Now we've taken the same curves, adapted them to include Gliese 581 g's habitability index of 0.4, and come up with a fresh prediction.
Our figures suggest there is an 82 per cent chance that we will find a true doppelgänger for Earth by the close of 2011.
PRIVATE companies have been promising for years that they can slash the cost of space travel, breaking the government monopoly on space flight and opening up the final frontier to the rest of us. At long last these efforts may be bearing fruit.
On 8 December, the California-based firm SpaceX launched its Dragon capsule into orbit and safely parachuted it into the ocean - the first time a private company has achieved the feat.
Several other companies, such as Boeing, have long-term plans to offer rides into space. But Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are likely to dominate headlines in the coming year, and may make 2011 the most exciting yet for private space flight.