3 'Super-Earths' Discovered, May Be Habitable [STUDY]

By iScienceTimes Staff on June 25, 2013 3:05 PM EDT

gliese
Three super-Earths in the orbit of the star Gliese 667C are in the "habitable zone," meaning they may contain liquid water--and extraterrestrial life. The artist impression above depicts Gliest 667C, which is 22 light years from Earth. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Three "super-Earths" that could potentially support alien life have been discovered hovering around the star Gliese 667C, an international team of scientists have announced in a paper published in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Gliese 667C, which lies some 22 light-years from Earth, was previously thought to have two or three planets orbiting it. It turns out that there are six or seven planets revolving around Gliese 667C, and that three of them are in the "habitable zone," meaning the super-Earths are the right temperature for liquid water to exist on their surfaces. And where there's water, there could be life.

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"We knew that the star had three planets from previous studies, so we wanted to see whether there were any more," said study co-leader Mikko Tuomi of the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. "By adding some new observations and revisiting existing data we were able to confirm these three and confidently reveal several more. Finding three low-mass planets in the star's habitable zone is very exciting!"

This is the first time that three super-Earths -- planets that have more mass than Earth, but not by more than ten times as much -- have been found in the same habitable zone of the same system. The study's authors say that the discovery of so many habitable zone planets in one place may mean there are more in our galaxy than previously thought.

"The number of potentially habitable planets in our galaxy is much greater if we can expect to find several of them around each low-mass star," said University of Washington astronomer Rory Barnes, lead U.S. author on the paper announcing the discovery. "Instead of looking at ten stars to look for a single potentially habitable planet, we now know we can look at just one star and find several of them."

The study's researchers don't know whether the super-Earths around Gliese 667C are rocky planets of if they contain toxic gasses that would render them inhabitable, but they believe it's the former.

"These planets are good candidates to have a solid surface and maybe an atmosphere like the Earth's," said Barnes.

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