Thursday, January 26, 2006

New Planet Found!


Courtesy of the Telegraph.

"The smallest and most Earth-like planet outside the Solar System has been discovered and astronomers say it increases the chances of finding extra-terrestrial life.
Scientists are excited at the detection of the planet, unromantically named OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, because it has a low mass, is rocky and has a thin atmosphere.

With a surface temperature of around -364F (-220C) it is unlikely to support living organisms but researchers believe that the find increases the probability that many other such worlds exist and that some could be suitable for life forms.
OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, around five times the mass of Earth and twice its diameter, is more than 20,000 light years away in the constellation Sagittarius, near the centre of our Milky Way galaxy.
It is only the third extra-solar planet - one that orbits a star other than the Sun - to be detected using gravitational microlensing, a method that relies on light from a background star being bent and magnified by the gravitational field of a star in the foreground.
Keith Horne, professor of astronomy at St Andrews University, is one of the 73 researchers from 32 institutions who collaborated to make the discovery, which is announced today in the journal Nature.
He said: "Our methods are 50 times more sensitive to the discovery of large gas giant planets, so the fact that the third we found is small and rocky means that there must be a large number of them.
"I expect we will go on finding more small rocky planets. This probably increases the likelihood of the existence of some form of life outside our Solar System."
The new planet orbits a parent star a fifth the size of the Sun. Its surface is thought to be buried deep under frozen oceans.
Gravitational microlensing was first proposed by Einstein. For the effect to work, a star must pass almost directly between the observer and the planet or star being observed. As such events are rare, many distant stars must be continuously monitored to detect planets at a reasonable rate.
Michael Turner, of America's National Science Foundation, said: "This is an important breakthrough in the quest to answer the question, 'Are we alone?'
"The team has discovered the most Earth-like planet yet and demonstrated the power of a new technique that is sensitive to detecting habitable planets. We can now probe a much greater portion of our galaxy."
The previous most Earth-like extra-solar planet is GJ 876d, which is 7.5 times the mass of Earth but is too hot to support life."

Great stuff! I know a few years ago they found a fair few gas giants orbiting various suns, but had difficult finding the much smaller rocky ones. And they managed to find those onse by, and this is incredible, studying distant stars for the wobble that the gravitational pull orbiting planets exert on their suns.


But using the very confusing method mentioned above, the ability to hunt out planets more likely to support life has been greatly increased, it would seem.
That's very good news, and it's always great to hear exciting stuff like that about the wider universe we live in, especially after the chaos with the Shuttle the past 3 years.

But between this, the ESA's probe to that comet last year, and NASA's space dust probey thing it's looking a bit brighter for those of us on Earth who keep our faces looking upwards.

The description of the planet is so rich in possibility too, I find.
Located near the centre of the solar system, covered in ancient frozen oceans (how do they know this?!)'d wonder if billions of years ago creatures on that world looked up into the night sky and wondered the same things we do about the stars above them?
And if life did exist there, did it prosper? Did intelligent life emerge? Did they leave their planet behind and explore their neighbourhood, as we've begun to? Did they escape the end of their world? Or are the ruins of their civilisation frozen forever beneath kilometres of ice until the end of time?

Cheers to those who found this little world. I hope many more come to light too.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

jeez i hope there IS guna be another planet NASA finds and there IS life form on there! But i just cant amejen.

1:20 PM  

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