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.


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