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Astronomers: Newly discovered planet may be able to support life

By Sally Holland, CNN Producer
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Life on another planet?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gilese 581g is 20 light years from Earth -- a near neighbor by galactic standards
  • Soon-to-be-published research says body is in "habitable" zone of its solar system
  • Scientists believe Gilese 581g has a mass three to four times that of Earth
  • A habitable planet has to be a rocky planet large enough to hold an atmosphere

Washington (CNN) -- Astronomers have discovered a new planet that just may be able to support life in a nearby solar system a mere 20 light years from Earth.

It's called Gliese 581g and is located in the constellation Libra. It circles the red dwarf star Gliese 581.

According to a research that is set to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, the planet is "squarely in the middle of the habitable zone of the star" which offers a very compelling case for a potentially habitable planet around a very nearby star.

When a planet falls in the "habitable zone" it means that it orbits the star at a distance that allows for the planet to have both liquid water and an atmosphere, two conditions that are considered important for life to exist.

"Our findings offer a very compelling case for a potentially habitable planet," said Astronomy Professor Steven Vogt of the University of California Santa Cruz who lead the research along with Astronomer Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institute.

To scientists a "potentially habitable" planet is not one where humans would want to live, but rather one that could sustain life.

The scientists believe the new planet has a mass three to four times that of Earth and orbits its star approximately every 37 days.

It's likely rocky planet, according to Vogt. Size is another factor in determining the likelihood of a planet to be able to support life. It has to be large enough to hold an atmosphere, but not so large that it becomes an "ice giant" like Neptune or Uranus.

"If we discover life outside our planet, it would perhaps be the most significant discovery of all time," said Ed Seidel of the National Science Foundation. "This is clearly one of the most exciting areas of science these days."

The report can be found at http://arxiv.org/list/astro-ph.EP/new.

 
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