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5 New Planets discovered which could Support Life

ABC News

29th Nov 1999

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Astronomers scanning distant stars have detected six more massive planets, five of which orbit their suns at just the right distance to support liquid water and -- theoretically -- life, scientists announced on Monday. The discoveries brought to 28 the total number of so-called "extrasolar" planets found over the past five years as astronomers survey hundreds of stars similar to Earth's sun for signs they may have planets in tow. Each set of new discoveries helps to hone scientific theories about the development of our own solar system and the possibility that Earth-like planets may be found. "Planet hunting is a lot like making wine," said Steven Vogt of the University of California-Santa Cruz, one of the team of astronomers collecting and analyzing data provided by Hawaii's Keck I Telescope, the sharpest optical telescope in the world. "You have got to plant the grapes, you have got to be patient, and at some point they ripen and are ready for harvest," Vogt said. "We have a lot of star systems that we have been looking at, and now are ready for harvest." None of the new planets unveiled on Monday are anything like Earth. Instead, they are gaseous giants ranging in size from slightly smaller to several times larger than Jupiter, the largest planet in our own solar system. And, like Jupiter, they were seen as extremely inhospitable to life themselves -- made up of swirling masses of helium and hydrogen gasses. But five out of the six are in what astronomers call the "habitable zone" which could allow the existence of liquid water, a prerequisite for life. This makes them different from most of the extrasolar planets found before this, which have been either to hot or too cold. "That five out of six of these things are in the habitable zones of their stars shows it is not an accident," Vogt said, noting that planetary temperatures could range from -38 degrees to 112 degrees Fahrenheit (-39 to 44 degrees Celsius). Hopes for life in these star systems would focus on possible moons of the giant gas planets, he said. Like Jupiter and Saturn, which have their own rocky satellites, moons of these planets could conceivably harbor liquid water and therefore life, he said. "That is the interesting thing, to think about water existing on the surface of some moon out there," Vogt said. "It's pure conjecture, but you can imagine some cave perhaps with water in it ... it is possible." Besides Vogt, the discovery team also included Geoffrey Marcy of the University of California-Berkeley, Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington D.C. and Kevin Apps of the University of Sussex in England. Their findings will be published in the Astrophysical Journal. One of the planets, HD 192263, was also recently detected by a team in Geneva, Switzerland, the U.S. team said. Planet-hunting astronomers do not actually see new planets, but rather detect their presence by watching for a telltale wobble in the stars they orbit; the wobble is caused by the gravitational pull the planets exert on the star. Vogt said the newly found systems were unlikely to harbor any Earth-like planets. Jupiter-sized planets in oval-shaped or eccentric orbits -- instead of the neatly stacked, circular orbits of our solar system -- would have such gravitational force as to quickly eject any smaller neighbor, he said. But he said the hunt will continue. With data continuing to pour in, scientists are able to calibrate their calculations more precisely and detect Jupiter-sized planets further away from their suns. The goal is to zero in on systems that roughly match our own, with large Jupiter-like planets circling in even orbits far enough away from the star that smaller, rocky Earth-like planets could exist closer in. "In order to detect these guys, you've got to wait for 11 or 12 years (for enough data). There could be a huge reservoir of planets out there, but we just don't know it yet,' Vogt said. "That's one of our Holy Grails. I think they are probably out there. We just have to be patient."

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