Friday, April 27, 2007

New Extra Solar Planet Found

As if the astronomical community can’t get any more exciting since Pluto’s status as a planet was questioned, now a new Earth-like planet is discovered outside our Solar System.

By: Vanessa Uy

It’s official, an Earth-like planet was discovered using a Chilean astronomical telescope system designed specifically to hunt small extra solar bodies. This Earth-like planet, the smallest so far discovered outside our Solar System, is located 20 light-years from us. This planet is five times the diameter of the Earth, which makes it’s the pull of gravity on its surface several magnitudes stronger than that found on ours. Astronomical instruments have detected large bodies of water on the surface of this new planet and also the presence of an Earth-like atmosphere. Since this new planet is too far away for conventional photography, only computer- generated models are published. Except these models are generated using the data gathered when observing the new planet.

Even though the new planet’s orbit is very close to its parent star which allows it to have a “year” of just 13 Earth days. Despite of this, the new planet lies within the “Goldilocks Zone” of its parent star which means the new planets surface temperature might be similar to Earth’s. The “Goldilocks Zone” is the technical term coined by the astronomical community to describe the region of a star’s orbital zone that’s neither too hot nor too cold from the “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” nursery tale. In our own Solar System, this averages around 93,000,000 miles or 150,000,000 kilometers from the Sun’s surface. Since the new planets parent star is much smaller than our Sun, its “Goldilocks Zone” is also much closer and hence the shorter it’s orbital period will be.

This is quite different than from just five years or so ago where our extra solar planet detection technology can only detect “gas giants” (i.e. Jupiter-like planets with no detectable solid surface) the size of Jupiter or larger. The only way to find out if there is life on this newly discovered planet or how the life forms compare to Earth’s is via space probes. Since the new planet is located 20 light-years from us, it might take a very, very long time for a space probe to reach it using our current rocket technology. How long does the trip lasts? Several million years is one guess.

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