I’ve always been a science fiction fan so the idea of planets orbiting other stars seemed perfectly natural to me. I never imagined, though, that astronomers would be able to detect these planets within my life time. I thought we would have to wait centuries until warp drive or something was invented. It turns out, though that in recent years astronomers have been able to refine their techniques not only to detect such planets, but even to learn quite a bit about them. At first they could only detect massive Jupiter sized planets but now it seems that they can study even Earth sized worlds.
The newfound haul of alien planets includes 16 super-Earths, which are potentially rocky worlds that are more massive than our planet. One in particular – called HD 85512 b – has captured astronomers’ attention because it orbits at the edge of its star’s habitable zone, suggesting conditions could be ripe to support life.
The exoplanet findings came from observations from the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher instrument, or HARPS. The HARPS spectrograph is part of ESO’s 11.8-foot (3.6-meter) telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. [
“The harvest of discoveries from HARPS has exceeded all expectations and includes an exceptionally rich population of super-Earths and Neptune-type planets hosted by stars very similar to our sun,” HARPS team leader Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva in Switzerland said in a statement. “And even better — the new results show that the pace of discovery is accelerating.”
The potentially habitable super-Earth, officially called HD 85512 b, is estimated to be only 3.6 times more massive than Earth, and its parent star is located about 35 light-years away, making it relatively nearby. HD 85512 b was found to orbit at the edge of its star’s habitable zone, which is a narrow region in which the distance is just right that liquid water could exist given the right conditions.
“This is the lowest-mass confirmed planet discovered by the radial velocity method that potentially lies in the habitable zone of its star, and the second low-mass planet discovered by HARPS inside the habitable zone,” said exoplanet habitability expert Lisa Kaltenegger, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany and Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Boston.
Further analysis of HD 85512 b and the other newfound exoplanets will be able to determine more about the potential existence of water on the surface.
“I think we’re in for an incredibly exciting time,” Kaltenegger told reporters in a briefing today (Sept. 12). “We’re not just going out there to discover new continents — we’re actually going out there to discover brand new worlds.”
The HARPS spectrograph is designed to detect tiny radial velocity signals induced by planets as small as Earth if they orbit close to their star.
If you find water and if the planet is far enough away from its star for that water to be liquid, than you have a good chance of life. On the other hand a planet 3.6 times as massive as the Earth will have 3.6 times more gravitational pull which wouldn’t make it very pleasant to live on. As the team continues their search and develops better equipment and techniques, maybe they’ll be able to find smaller planets we could live on. We still need warp drive though.
- HARPS tunes in on habitable planet (physorg.com)
- Super-Earth on ‘edge of habitability’ (cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com)
- Super Earth Found With Super Humans (weeklyworldnews.com)
The last one is fun. I miss seeing the Weekly World News in grocery stores, etc.