An international team of astronomers from Switzerland, France and Portugal have discovered the most Earth-like planet outside our Solar System to date.
The planet has a radius only 50 percent larger than Earth and is very likely to contain liquid water on its surface.
The research team used the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO’s) 3.6-m telescope to discover the super-Earth, which has a mass about five times that of the Earth and orbits a red dwarf already known to harbour a Neptune-mass planet.
Astronomers believe there is a strong possibility in the presence of a third planet with a mass about eight times that of the Earth in the system.
However, unlike our Earth, this planet takes only 13 days to complete one orbit round its star. It is also 14 times closer to its star than the Earth is from the Sun.
However, since its host star, the red dwarf Gliese 581, is smaller and colder than the Sun – and thus less luminous – the planet lies in the habitable zone, the region around a star where water could be liquid!
“We have estimated that the mean temperature of this super-Earth lies between 0 and 40 degrees Celsius, and water would thus be liquid,” said Stiphane Udry from the Geneva Observatory, Switzerland and lead-author of the paper in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.
“Moreover, its radius should be only 1.5 times the Earth’s radius, and models predict that the planet should be either rocky – like our Earth – or covered with oceans,” he said.
“Liquid water is critical to life as we know it and because of its temperature and relative proximity, this planet will most probably be a very important target of the future space missions dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial life. On the treasure map of the Universe, one would be tempted to mark this planet with an X,” added Xavier Delfosse, a member of the team from Grenoble University, France.
According to the research team, the host star, Gliese 581, is among the 100 closest stars to us, located only 20.5 light-years away in the constellation Libra (“the Scales”).
The star has a mass only one third that of the Sun. Such red dwarfs are at least 50 times intrinsically fainter than the Sun and are the most common stars in our Galaxy. Among the 100 closest stars to the Sun, 80 belong to this class.
“Red dwarfs are ideal targets for the search for such planets because they emit less light, and the habitable zone is thus much closer to them than it is around the Sun. Any planets that lie in this zone are more easily detected with the radial-velocity method, the most successful in detecting exoplanets,” said Xavier Bonfils, a co-worker from Lisbon University.