New planets in a galaxy not so far away……

The habitable zone of a near-by star contains three planets that could support organic life, scientists have announced.

An international team, consisting of researchers from the University of Hertfordshire and the University of Göttingen, found an unprecedented three potentially habitable planets orbiting Gilese 667C, a star a mere 22 light-years from Earth.  They added new HARPS observations, along with data from ESO’s Very Large Telescope, the W.M. Keck Observatory and the Magellan Telescopes, to the already existing HARPS picture. Previous studies indicated that merely one of the three lay within the habitable zone. The three planets are in what is known as the “Goldilocks zone” – the temperature region whereby liquid water, the essential ingredient of all organic life, could exist. Gilese 667C is part of a three –star system, so the planets could see three suns in a single day.

“It’s very exciting that we’ve found a nearby star that has so many planets in its habitable zone,” University of Washington astronomer Rory Barnes said. However, it is still unclear whether the trio are rocky planets, as opposed to gassy worlds, where toxic or suffocating gases would make life impossible. However, according to Dr Barnes, “these planets are good candidates to have a solid surface and maybe an atmosphere like the Earth’s, not something like Jupiter’s.” Their close proximity “makes it like they are tidally locked, which in this case means the same hemisphere always faces the star…fortunately, we know that this state can still support life.”

The planets are part of a classification known as ‘super-earths.’ As the name connotes, they are larger than Earth, but smaller than larger planets within our own solar system – such as Uranus and Neptune. These new found planets orbit the faintest star of a triple star system. Scientists hypothesise that when viewed from one of these newly found planets, the two other suns would look like a pair of very bright stars visible during the daytime and at night. It is believed that they would be as bright as the full Moon. The new planets completely fill up the habitable zone of Gliese 667C, as there are no more stable orbits in which a planet could exist at the right distance to it.

The planets are a mere 22 light years from earth. This is really quite close to us – certainly well within the Sun’s neighbourhood – and is much closer than the stars investigated using telescopes such as the ‘planet-hunting’ Kepler space telescope. Yet although these planets are relatively close-by, it would still be impossible to reach them with the chemical rockets available today.

While a manned mission to Gilese 667C is clearly a very long way off, today’s discovery offers much to be excited about. As Dr Rory Barnes of the University of Washington notes: “The number of potentially habitable planets in our galaxy is now much greater if we can expect to find several of them around each low-mass star (as we did with Gilese 667 .)  Instead of looking at ten stars to look for a single potentially habitable planet, we now know we can look at just one star and find several of them.

Sources include: The Independent and BBC News

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