A Profusion of Planets: Astronomers Spot 32 New Worlds Around Distant Stars

By Eliza Strickland | October 19, 2009 12:28 pm

gliese-667Planets, planets, everywhere! Astronomers have announced the discovery of 32 new planets orbiting distant stars, bringing the list of known exoplanets up to more than 400. The batch of freshly discovered worlds include four that are only five or six times the mass of Earth, an encouraging sign in the quest for a truly Earth-like world that could support life. Researcher Stephane Udry says the discovery is exciting because it suggests that low-mass planets could be numerous in our galaxy. “From [our] results, we know now that at least 40% of solar-type stars have low-mass planets. This is really important because it means that low-mass planets are everywhere, basically” [BBC News].

The discovery was made with the HARPS telescope at the European Southern Observatory‘s facility in Chile. HARPS uses the so-called wobble method to detect planets, in which researchers look for the slight quiver in a star’s regular movements that indicates the gravitational tug of an orbiting planet.

Planets were found around a surprising variety of star types. Gas giant planets were found orbiting “metal-poor” stars — those lacking in elements other than hydrogen and helium — which until now had been considered unlikely places for planets to form [Washington Post]. Researchers also located four exoplanets around relatively cool, small stars known as M-class red dwarfs, and will continue to examine such stars for signs of Earth-like planets. The team expects to keep spotting planets by the dozen, says Udry: “Nature doesn’t like a vacuum so if there is space to put a planet it will put a planet there” [Reuters].

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Image: European Southern Observatory. Artist’s impression of a newly discovered planet orbiting the star Gliese 667 C, which is part of a triple star system.

  • http://clubneko.net nick

    We need to stop thinking of ourselves as beautiful and unique snowflakes.

    If we live long enough, I believe we’ll find life everywhere. Life as we know it is too persistent. Life as we don’t know it is just as likely to be as persistent.

    I mean, how many times has a sizable chunk of all life on Earth been wiped out? Didn’t stop it for a second!

    I predict that a sizable percentage of stars will have planets. This will probably be limited by neutron stars and black holes – but we’ve seen how far out planets in our own solar system can be, so they may indeed survive long enough to still orbit ‘dead’ stars.

    We also have to consider that planets much smaller than earth could host life. Planets smaller than Earth make up 20, 30% of the planets in our solar system? Not to mention planets could have satellites that host life. The jury is still out on this in our own solar system.

    There are trillions of stars in our home galaxy. There are hundreds of billions of other galaxies.

    And that’s not even if you take into account the possibility that the multiverse theory may be true (which, from everything we’ve discovered as time goes on, seems much more likely than us being the only universe. 100 years ago the Milky Way was the universe, and all other galaxies were just nebula. 20 years ago we were the only solar system with planets. etc.).

    The other day, some scientists released a number that was a result of their calculation about how many other universes there could be with physics laws that didn’t result in their immediate collapse. The number? 10^10^10^7 – that’s ten to the tenth power to the tenth power to the seventh power. The limit on the amount of galaxies a human could comprehend is something like 10^10^16 – also an astronomically huge number, and one that’s literally limited by the amount of connections available in the human brain. By comparison, there are 10^80 atoms in our visible universe.

    Just for the sake of those who don’t know powers of ten intimately, 10^10^16 = 10^100,000,000,000,000,000 which equals one followed by 100,000,000,000,000,000 zeros. That number is so large I’m pretty sure we don’t have a computer built yet that could actually hold that number in it’s memory.

    Infinity is very infinite indeed.

  • scribbler

    Let’s stick to science and not speculation: There is only one planet/moon/whatever proven to have life on it. The more of these lifeless rocks, for that is what we know so far, we find, the more unique Earth becomes.

  • Steve

    Yes, and let’s pretend that if a person never leaves her house that nothing else exists outside of it.

  • Max E

    I feel as though Earth has been created in such perfect and improbable circumstances to make it extremely improbable to find anything which can support life as we know it. By all means, if we’re looking at possibilities of other galaxies being to the values that Nick mentions, then you’d have to think that the improbability of us ever surfacing would have to have occurred elsewhere a few times over.

    But if there are, in fact, 10^10^16^Infinity-plus-one-no-returns-i-know-you-are-but-what-am-i galaxies out there…then the discovery of 400 exoplanets isn’t even scratching the electron cloud of the surface. It’s certainly interesting work, and hey, if you can bleed funding from somewhere to find other planets, then by all means keep yourself employed…but I truly think that the pursuit of extraterrestial life is as futile as any pursuit comes.

  • Mike

    Carl Sagon said it best…..

    In ALL of space, if we are the only intelligent life-forms, what a great waste of space!

    Narrow-minded and stubborn is the human race, especially to accept new ideas.

    Well, something to think about anyways.

  • JD

    This article got me excited to learn more about the worlds discovered. I love finding out that our universe is gradually becoming smaller and smaller (figuratively, of course). And I love to try to ponder the possibilities and potential that this brings.

    …And then I read tMax E.’s and scribbler’s comments above and got depressed.

  • CH

    I hope they find one with spectral traces of alunium phosdex, the shaving cream atom. I hear the world’s supply of it is alarmingly low.


  • Kimberly S Lewis

    We once thought the earth was flat and whales were sea monsters! We are a very arrogant species, violent, greedy, destructive and selfish. But, there are and have been so many wonderful human beings. Right now, I hope man kind stays far away from those planets, but, well it’s like seeing your child, such a wonderful creation! Such wonderful possibilities! What a gift!

  • liu

    If we expands the forms of life in our mind ,we will find more!!

  • Nick talks too much

    I don’t think we’ll be around long enough to visit any other big blue marbles.

    The shocking and sad way we treat our own house makes me glad we are grounded!

  • Edgar Waga

    The more we search for life and see how hard it is to find a replica of the same,then the more you see how unique we really are.All this searching just tells me how special we are that in this vastness,we exist.Persistent as you say,but we do.I refuse to simply take the idea that we are here by ‘chance’.This is too big an occurrence you simply cant attribute to chance or luck or whatever…we are here by design from a higher being.He is our God.

  • mikinakn

    It seems a very short time ago the earth was flat, there was no China, no Africa, no Australia, no North America, no South America, no Antarctica and the moon was made of cheese. Now, ‘that’ bespeaks a highly evolved intelligence.

    A few days ago a couple of harmless gays were beaten and killed…I wonder what we would do to an alien.

    A grown, supposedly intelligent man, in the sauna last evening said of Obama, ‘…where the hell is the Ku Klux Klan when you need them…’ laughing long and loud like it was profound and humorous.

    Myself, Native American, a young Bolivian and a young Mexican just looked at each other and through our eyes we understood, clearly, the nature of our worlds.

  • dumisani

    tank u


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