30 March 2012
Scientists in Chile say a new study suggests there are billions of planets in our galaxy with conditions which could be capable of supporting life. Astronomers are working with technology known as High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher - or HARPS.
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Thousands of years of astronomy spent wondering about potentially habitable planets in the universe and then 64 billion come along at once.
The discovery of new planets has in recent years become commonplace but most have been spotted by looking at changes in the light of their bright stars. Now we have a view into the smaller, darker red dwarfs that make up 80 percent of stars in our galaxy.
The HARPS team peered at a representative sample of stars estimating that 40% of the 160 billion red dwarfs in our galaxy has a super-Earth circling in the Goldilocks or habitable zone; that's where the temperature is just right for liquid water.
Astronomers are getting better at spotting smaller planets close to Earth's size and it seems that everywhere they look and in every way they look, planets abound. There's still a long way to go to determine whether any of them has conditions suitable for life and a long way again to search for life itself.
But with billions of kitchens in which the ingredients of life might come together, it's ever more difficult to doubt that the recipe has been tried elsewhere.
Click to hear the vocabulary
- potentially habitable planets
planets that might be able to support life
common or frequent
- red dwarfs
a small star that has a low temperature
- peered at
planet with a mass higher than the Earth's but below that of a gas giant
region where conditions are favourable to life
are found in large quantities
be certain about