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Astronomers Spot Fourth Potential Habitable Planet

February 3, 2012

An international team of astronomers have discovered a potentially habitable planet 22 light years away orbiting a nearby star, reports The Telegraph.

Scientists, led by Carnegie´s Guillem Anglada-Escudé and Paul Butler, discovered the triple star system with a planet orbiting one of the stars, clearly within the habitable zone, where its neither too hot nor too cold, making it suitable for liquid water to be present on the surface.

The host star has a different makeup than our own Sun, being relatively lacking in metallic elements — a discovery that demonstrates that habitable planets can form in a greater variety of environments than previously believed.

Publishing their findings in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, and also available at http://arxiv.org/archive/astro-ph,  the team said the planet has a mass at least 4.5 times that of Earth and orbits its host star about once every 28 days, meaning its year equals about one Earth month.

Data was analyzed from the European Southern Observatory on the GJ 667C star, which is an M-class dwarf star that puts out much less heat than our Sun. The team believes there are at least three planets orbiting close to the star, with one being close enough that it could support life, with similar temperatures that we have on Earth.

“This was expected to be a rather unlikely star to host planets. Yet there they are, around a very nearby, metal-poor example of the most common type of star in our galaxy,” said UC Santa Cruz astronomer Steven Voght. “The detection of this planet, this nearby and this soon, implies that our galaxy must be teeming with billions of potentially habitable rocky planets.”

GJ 667C had previously been observed to have a super-Earth-like planet (GJ 667Cb), but the findings were never published. The planet, however, orbits too close to the star and would not be a suitable planet to host liquid water. The team were collecting data on this planet when they found the clear signal of the new planet (GJ 667Cc). The team said it receives about 90 percent of the light that Earth receives; however, because most of its incoming light is in the infrared, more of this incoming energy should be absorbed by the planet, giving it about the same amount as the Earth absorbs from the sun.

The close-orbiting rocky planet found “is the new best candidate to support liquid water and, perhaps, life as we know it,” said Anglada-Escudé, now working at the University of Gottingen in Germany.

But the theory about water will not be confirmed until astronomers learn more about the planet´s atmosphere.

Some experts have been skeptical that M-class dwarf stars could have planets in the habitable zone because they are too dim and tend to have lots of solar flare activity that can emit lethal doses of radiation to nearby planets.

But the new findings could indicate those experts are wrong. Astronomers are intrigued by the possibilities that these stars could in fact host planets within the habitable zone, suitable for both life and water.

“With the advent of a new generation of instruments, researchers will be able to survey many M dwarf stars for similar planets and eventually look for spectroscopic signatures of life in one of these worlds,” said Anglada-Escudé.

At least two other planets had been discovered within the past year that may also potentially be within the habitable zone. In May, French astronomers confirmed the first exoplanet, Gliese 581d, about 20 light years away, to meet the key requirements to support life. And Swiss astronomers in August discovered planet HD 85512b, about 36 light years away, that seemed to also be within the habitable zone.

Image Caption: Artist’s impression of Gliese 667 Cb with the Gliese 667 A/B binary in the background. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

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Source: RedOrbit Staff & Wire Reports



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