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Scientists Discover Most Earth-Like Planet Yet

Jun 30, 2014 03:01 PM EDT
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Gliese 832c
A team of researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has discovered a potentially habitable Earth-like planet that is only 16 light years away.
(Photo : PHL, University of Puerto Rica, Arecibo)

A team of researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has discovered a potentially habitable Earth-like planet that is only 16 light years away.

This "super-Earth" planet, dubbed GJ 832 c, takes 16 days to orbit its red-dwarf star, GJ 832, and has a mass at least five times that of Earth. And because red dwarf stars shine with less intensity than our Sun, GJ 832 c may experience temperatures similar to those on Earth.

It is due to these characteristics, the UNSW team says, that this planet shows promise for being able to harbor complex life, and is among the top three most Earth-like planets, according to the Earth Similarity Index developed by scientists at the University of Puerto Rica in Arecibo.

The international team, led by Dr. Robert Wittenmyer, notes that this planet may have an Earth-like atmosphere capable of sustaining life - though with more extreme seasonal shifts - but they are also taking this discovery with a healthy dose of skepticism.

"However, given the large mass of the planet, it seems likely that it would possess a massive atmosphere, which may well render the planet inhospitable. A denser atmosphere would trap heat and could make it more like a super-Venus and too hot for life," researcher Professor Chris Tinney, Head of UNSW's Exoplanetary Science research group, explained in a news release.

Members of the Anglo-Australian Planet Search team used the Anglo-Australian Telescope, in combination with observations from Chile's 6.5m Magellan Telescope and the European Southern Observatory 3.6m telescope to make the discovery. GJ 832 c gave itself away when its gravitational pull on its parent star caused it to wobble slightly.

And though GJ 832 c is third on the list of potentially habitable planets - trailing exoplanet Gliese 667C c and Kepler-62 e, located 23 and 1,200 light years away, respectively - this newly found planet is by far the closest at a mere 16 light years away. For comparison, the Milky Way is 100,000 light years across.

This research comes into focus after another study claimed that the Milky Way may harbor 100 million other life-sustaining worlds.

The findings were announced online ahead of publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

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