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The new Earth is around the corner

Staff writer ▼ | October 23, 2009
The search for a new planet suitable for Homo sapiens shows a very good progress. First the team of scientist found 32 new exoplanets and then researchers have detected the basic chemistry for life in the hot gas planet.
New Earth
New EarthThe search for a new planet suitable for Homo sapiens shows a very good progress. First the team of scientist found 32 new exoplanets and then researchers have detected the basic chemistry for life in the hot gas planet.


The team who built the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher, HARPS, discovered 32 new exoplanets. This increases the number of known low-mass planets by an impressive 30% and over the past five years HARPS has spotted more than 75 of the roughly 400 exoplanets, planets outside our solar system, which are possible hosts of extraterrestrial life.

In 1999, ESO launched a call for building an extremely precise spectrograph for the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla, Chile. Michel Mayor from the Geneva Observatory led a consortium to build a new device named HARPS which was installed in 2003. It was able to measure the back-and-forward motions of stars by detecting small changes in a star's radial velocity as it wobbles slightly under the gravitational pull from an exoplanet that we can't see directly. This is the best method in the search for exoplanets the scientists currently have.

The HARPS consortium got 100 observing nights per year during five years to carry out one of the most ambitious systematic searches for exoplanets by repeatedly measuring the radial velocities of hundreds of stars that may harbour planetary systems. Using HARPS, the team discovered the first super-Earth, the trio of Neptunes; the first super Earth in the habitable zone of a small star, and the lightest exoplanet so far detected around a normal star, Gliese 581e.

At the same time, NASA researchers have detected the basic chemistry for life in a second hot gas planet, HD 209458b. The planet is not habitable but it has the same chemistry that, if found around a rocky planet in the future, could indicate the presence of life. "It's the second planet outside our solar system in which water, methane and carbon dioxide have been found, which are potentially important for biological processes in habitable planets," said researcher Mark Swain of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

Swain and his team used data from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope. They studied a hot, gaseous giant planet bigger than Jupiter that orbits a sun-like star about 150 light years away in the constellation Pegasus - HD 209458b. The new finding follows their breakthrough discovery in December 2008 of carbon dioxide around another hot, Jupiter-size planet, HD 189733b. Earlier Hubble and Spitzer observations of that planet had also revealed water vapour and methane.

Although there is a possibility for a life without water, methane and carbon dioxide, those findings are very important because they tell us that it's not so impossible to find an extraterrestrial life in the universe. Maybe we won't find an alien species in space ship but a simple living bacteria would be one of the greatest events in the history of human kind. And we are getting closer.

Contributed by: Joana Rodeiro


 

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