A team of planet hunters led by astronomers at the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz and the Carnegie Institution of Washington has announced the discovery of a planet orbiting a nearby star, Gliese 581, at a distance that places it squarely in the middle of the star's "habitable zone." This would be the most Earth-like exoplanet and the first truly habitable one yet discovered. The research was supported by grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation. "Goldilocks" refers to an exoplanet whose temperatures are "not too cold, not too hot, but just right" to maintain water and support Earth-like life:
NASA's official announcement today:
Astronomers say they've found the first planet beyond our solar system that could have the right size and setting to sustain life as we know it, only 20 light-years from Earth.
My own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent," Steven Vogt, an astrophysicist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, told reporters today. "I have almost no doubt about it."
The discovery, published online in The Astrophysical Journal, is the result of 11 years of observations at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Astronomers participating in the Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey detected the planet by tracking the faint gravitational wobbles it produced in its parent star.
Now they say there may well be many more planets out there like this one."The fact that we were able to detect this planet so quickly and so nearby tells us that planets like this must be really common," Vogt said in a news release.
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