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Three ‘Super Earths’ spotted orbiting nearby star

  • Scientists have discovered a potential trio of Earth-like worlds orbiting a star that is a mere 11 light-years from us.
  • The star is a red dwarf, and the planets may lie within the star’s habitable zone.
  • Future telescope technology could reveal whether these planets have atmospheres and potentially even life.

As far as we know, there’s only one “Earth” out there in the cosmos. Researchers say the odds of there being intelligent life on some distant planet are good, even within our own galaxy, but before we meet E.T. we need to find the worlds on which it lives. Now, researchers say they’ve spotted a nearby star that appears to host not one, not two, but up to three so-called “super Earths.”

The research, which was published in Science, holds a lot of promise, but we don’t yet possess the technology to view these Earth-alikes in greater detail. Nevertheless, researchers are gearing up to determine exactly what these large rocky planets offer.

The most visible red dwarf star from Earth is a red-hot orb known as Gliese 887. The research team led by the University of Göttingen was able to detect a pair of large rocky bodies orbiting this small star, and they say there might be a third. Known as “super-Earths” because they’re larger than Earth but are thought to be rocky planets like our own, rather than gas giants.

Their distance from their host star is much shorter than that of the Earth-Sun relationship. One of the planets completes an orbit in just 9.3 days, while the other takes 21.8 days to complete a full trip. If these planets were orbiting that close to our own Sun they would be burnt-out lifeless husks, but because red dwarf stars are much less intense than our Sun, the habitable zone surrounding these stars is much different. It’s believed that these newfound planets are indeed in or at least near the habitable zone, making them very interesting to anyone who is searching for life outside of Earth.

Via press release:

If Gliese 887 was as active as our Sun, it is likely that a strong stellar wind – outflowing material which can erode a planet’s atmosphere – would simply sweep away the planets’ atmospheres. This means that the newly discovered planets may retain their atmospheres, or have thicker atmospheres than the Earth, and potentially host life, even though GJ887 receives more light than the Earth.

The other particularly cool thing about this discovery is that the star, Gliese 887, is a mere 11 light-years from Earth. That’s still too far to even begin to think about visiting with our current technology, but it’s close enough that the next generation of high-powered telescopes — starting with the James Webb Space Telescope if it ever manages to get off the ground — could be capable of revealing more about the planets than scientists have ever known about any world outside of our solar neighborhood.

We won’t be able to learn much more about these planets without deploying new technology, so for the moment, we’ll just have to wait and wonder.

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