Astronomers discover 16 new ‘super-Earth’ planets

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A group of astronomers announced today the discovery of more than 50 new planets, including 16 “super-Earth” planets, one of which has the potential to support alien life. This massive batch of new planets, the largest exoplanetary find to date, were uncovered using the  High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) planet-finding technology at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Of those discovered, the planet with the most potential to have an atmosphere suitable for life has been dubbed HD85512b, and orbits within the “habitable zone,” a small area of space in which a planet can retain the potential to contain liquid water. HD85512b, which is 3.6 times the mass of our planet, and about 36 light years away, orbits a star that is slightly smaller and cooler than Earth’s star. 

HARPS works by monitoring the movement of stars. A slight wobble in a star indicates that a planet is pulling at its gravity. So far, HARPS has been used to find 150 new planets. Scientists have discovered about 600 planets total, since 1995.

 “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,” said Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva, Switzerland, who led the study. “And even better — the new results show that the pace of discovery is accelerating.”

While searching for new planets has become an increasingly successful endeavor, determining whether the new planets have atmospheres suitable for containing water remains far out of reach. In order to do this, scientists must be able to get an image of the planet in question. But no telescope yet exists that’s capable of viewing distant planets.

Fortunately, construction will begin next year on a telescope, improbably named the European Extremely Large Telescope, which will be able to take such images.

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