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Astronomers find new planet in Earth's 'backyard'

1998 image showing dust disk surrounding Epsilon Eridani. The star itself is represented by the white star at center  

LONDON (Reuters) -- A team of international astronomers said Friday they had discovered a new planet, possibly bigger than Jupiter, in a nearby solar system. The yet-to-be-named planet orbits the star Epsilon Eridani, the closest star to Earth that has a circling planet.

"Detecting a planet orbiting Epsilon Eridani -- a star very similar to our own sun -- is like finding a planet in our own backyard," team leader William Cochran said in a statement.

"Not only is this planet nearby, it lies 478 million kilometers (297 million miles) from its central star -- roughly the distance from the sun to the asteroid belt in our own solar system," the astronomer at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory in Austin added.

  MESSAGE BOARD
 

The distance between the planet and its star opens up the possibility that there could be Earth-like planets closer to Epsilon Eridani -- in a zone that Cochran said might be habitable. The team will announce the discovery at the International Astronomical Union (IAU) General Assembly Monday when 2000 astronomers from 87 countries converge on the northern English city for the 11-day meeting.

They estimate that the new planet, one of several expected to be announced during the assembly, is bigger than Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system.

It is made up mostly of gas and its eccentric orbit lasts just under seven years, about 60 percent as long as Jupiter's.

Astronomers consider stable orbits, like those of the Earth and other nearby planets, an important factor in the development of life.

"The exciting thing about this discovery is that having a large planet orbiting fairly far out from Epsilon Eridani means there could be room for Earth-like planets in a reasonably stable orbit closer to the star," Cochran explained.

The astronomers found the planet using data sets from four different telescopes with three different measuring techniques.

Because Epsilon Eridani is so bright and one of the 10 nearest star systems it is easily detectable, and can be seen with the naked eye.

"You can go outside at night, even in Austin, and point at it and say that star there has a planet around it," Cochran added.

The new planet is the 41st to be discovered outside our solar system recently. Three others were found by the University of Texas University team in Austin.

The general assembly of the Paris-based IAU will feature 500 talks and presentations. The meeting is held every three years.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



RELATED STORIES:
Hubble image of so-called 'rogue' planet is actually a star
April 7, 2000
Two planets smaller than Saturn found orbiting distant stars
March 30, 2000
Astronomers discover new solar system
April 15, 1999


RELATED SITES:
Epsilon Eridani
System 38 - Epsilon Eridani
UT Austin | McDonald Observatory
The International Astronomical Union

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