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Home > News > PTI

New planet might support life

April 25, 2007 10:41 IST

Astronomers have discovered a new planet circling a dim red star around 20 light years away from our solar system, which could be a "super earth" supporting life.

The planet is five times as massive as the earth and is in the constellation of Libra. The extra solar planet is orbiting one of our closest stellar neighbours, the red dwarf star Gliese 581.

The planet was spotted by Stiphane Udry of the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland and his colleagues by detecting wobbles in the parent star, caused by the orbiting planet's gravity.

The planet is much closer to its star than we are to the Sun orbiting at one-fourteenth of the Earth-Sun distance, the Nature magazine reports.

But because Gliese 581 is a red dwarf, which emits less light and heat than the Sun, the planet is in the so-called "habitable zone" for its star.

The researchers' calculations suggest that the planet's average temperature is between 0 and 40 degree Celsius, perfect for liquid water, and perhaps even for life, to exist.

But this is a very crude temperature estimate, says Udry's colleague Michel Mayor, principal investigator for High Accuracy Radial velocity Planetary Searcher, the instrument that made the observations in La Silla, Chile.

Nature says the new planet would be a so-called "super-Earth" -- a very exciting prospect, says exoplanet expert David Charbonneau at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"If the planet is a rocky super-Earth, then perhaps it has a surface with liquid water and life," Charbonneau suggests.

There is another, less exciting option, however, which would make the planet slightly less homely, he adds: "If instead the planet is a 'sub-Neptune', then it would have a large gas envelope that buries the surface below, making it inhospitable for life."

To get a better idea, more information about the nature of the planet would be needed for example, whether it has an atmosphere or not. "For the time being, it is difficult to know more," he says.

It is the smallest of the 200 or so planets that are known to exist outside of our solar system, The New York Times said.

"We are at the right place for that," said Dr Udry, the lead author of a paper describing the discovery that has been submitted to the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

But he and other astronomers, the paper says, cautioned that it was far too soon to conclude that liquid water was there without more observations.

Sara Seager, a planet expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said, "For example, if the planet had an atmosphere more massive than Venus', then the surface would likely be too hot for liquid water."

Nature said the new planet is the closest in mass to Earth ever discovered outside our Solar System "the previous
nearest match was roughly 5.5 times the mass of Earth and in a much more distant orbit from its star.

The technique used by Udry's team can only put a lower limit on the planet's likely mass, and its size can therefore only be guessed at: if the planet is rocky and Earth-like, its radius should be around 1.5 that of Earth. If the planet is ocean-like, it will be slightly bigger. The researchers have submitted their results to the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Information about the planet's composition, Nature says, can only be gleaned if the planet is passing in front of, or transiting, its star, and the chances of seeing that happen with any one planet is about 2 per cent, says Mayor.

But this doesn't mean that they will stop looking. "We have good reason to believe that this kind of planet exists around other stars," he says.

And if there are a lot of planets whizzing around their stars, at some point a transiting planet will be seen.

The latest discovery follows news two years ago of two other planets orbiting Gliese 581, one roughly eight times the Earth's mass, and the other around 15 times Earth's mass.

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