A rich starry sky fills the view from an ancient gas-giant planet in the core of the globular star cluster M4, as imagined in this artist's concept. The 13-billion-year-old planet orbits a helium white-dwarf star and the millisecond pulsar B1620-26, seen at lower left. The globular cluster is deficient in heavier elements for making planets, so the existence of such a world implies that planet formation may have been quite efficient and common in the early universe. Object Names: B1620-26, M4 Image Type: Artwork
HARPS has discovered a new world – HD 85512 b – that may support life. (Photo Credit: CC BY/NASA and G. Bacon STScI/Flickr)

Astronomers have discovered 50 alien worlds in recent months. Of those, 16 meet the qualifications for being Super-Earths, planets with a mass between the same and 10 times that of Earth. One of the more reachable of the Super-Earths may even have conditions that support life.

Meet HD 85512 b

Scientists used the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrograph and telescope at La Silla Observatory in Chile to track the Super-Earths, including HD 85512 b, a planet within the “just right” distance from a star – the Goldilocks zone – where liquid water can exist and organic life can theoretically flourish. Dr. Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva in Switzerland marveled at the HARPS discovery:

“The harvest of discoveries from HARPS has exceeded all expectations and includes an exceptionally rich population of super-Earths and Neptune-type planets hosted by stars very similar to our sun,” Mayor said. “And even better — the new results show that the pace of discovery is accelerating.”

HD 85512 b sits about 35 light years from Earth, which means it is conceivably reachable. It is estimated to be 3.6 times more massive than Earth. As Dr. Lisa Kaltenegger of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy noted, HD 85512 b is the second low-mass planet discovered to date within the Goldilocks zone of a star.

“I think we’re in for an incredibly exciting time,” Kaltenegger told reporters. “We’re not just going out there to discover new continents — we’re actually going out there to discover brand new worlds.”

How HARPS works

The HARPS spectrograph can detect radial velocity signals – variations in the velocity of a central star as exoplanets orbit and affect gravitational pull. Using this technology, astronomers have determined that about 40 percent of all stars similar to Earth’s sun have at least one orbiting planet that is less massive than Saturn, or low mass planets. According to NASA, before the 50 most recently discovered alien worlds, astronomers have confirmed 564 alien planets, with at least 1,200 remaining under investigation.

On discovering 50 new alien worlds



Life’s Little Mysteries – Super-Earth: http://www.lifeslittlemysteries.com/super-earth-definition-2012/

Live Science: http://www.livescience.com/16013-habitable-alien-planet-hd-85512b-super-earth.html

Radial velocity Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radial_velocity

Space.com: http://www.space.com/10860-kepler-harps-north-instrument.html

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