May 17, 2006

Chile Telescope Discovers Three Planets

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Scientists using a Chilean telescope have discovered a unique planetary system made up of three planets similar to Neptune orbiting a star a little more massive than our sun, the European Southern Observatory said on Wednesday.

"The planet closest to the star is probably rocky and the farthest is the first exoplanet of that mass that is in the habitable zone of its star, meaning, where water could be found in liquid form," the observatory said in a news release. An exoplanet is a planet that orbits a star other than the sun.

"It's the first discovery of a planetary system made up of various planets of a Neptune-type mass," said Christophe Lovis, astronomer with Switzerland's Observatory of Geneva, said in the news release.

Lovis is the lead author of an article about the find to be published on Thursday in Nature magazine.

Teams of scientists from the Observatory of Geneva and the University of Bern Physics Institute, both in Switzerland, have been observing the star for more than two years. It is 41 light years away in the Puppis constellation.

The scientists used the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher, or HARPS spectrograph instrument, at the 12-foot (3.6-meter) telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile's fourth region, which is famous for its clear skies and is home to several important telescopes.