Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory have announced that they have discovered 3 ‘super-Earths,’ all capable of supporting life, orbiting around a single star called Gliese 667C. The star is only 22 light years distant and the haul of three potentially-habitable planets is a first of its kind discovery.
So, what of the finding?
Speaking on the discovery, study co-leader Mikko Tuomi of the University of Hertfordshire said that “we knew that the star had three planets from previous studies, so we wanted to see whether there were any more . . . by adding some new observations and revisiting existing data we were able to confirm these three and confidently reveal several more. Finding three low-mass planets in the star’s habitable zone is very exciting!”
Another interesting finding: the star’s habitable zone is packed full, making it virtually impossible for another planet to orbit stably within the habitable zone.
Team member Rory Barnes of the University of Washington further mused on implications of the findings, saying that “the number of potentially habitable planets in our galaxy is much greater if we can expect to find several of them around each low-mass star . . . instead of looking at 10 stars to look for a single potentially habitable planet, we now know we can look at just one star and find several of them.”
In recent years, it is the search for rocky extrasolar planets in their parent stars’ habitable zones that has been the focus for astronomers. Thanks to advances in technology, exemplified by Kepler, that allow for the measurement of stars’ brightness to almost unimaginable sensitivities, this can now be done as these Earth-sized planets were simply impossible to detect with the older Doppler Shift technology that was used to find the first extrasolar planets, all of which were Jupiter-sized giants.
To date, Kepler has found over 3,200 probable planets orbiting other stars. So far, only about 132, less than 5%, have been confirmed to exist but mission scientists estimate that, in time, over 90% of these potential planets will be confirmed as real. The interesting trend in these findings: Earth-like planets are being found at ever-increasing frequency and that smaller (Neptune and smaller-sized) planets are more numerous than Jupiter-like worlds. While certainly not being the fingerprint of an alien civilization, Kepler’s discoveries are interesting in that it is now known that very inviting, Earth-like planets, can exist throughout the reaches of space.
In the end, no matter what happens with the observatory itself, it will have a rich legacy of discovery that is sure to keep scientists busy for years to come.
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