News / Science & Technology

Scientists Discover Potentially Habitable Alien Planet

This artist's impression shows the planet orbiting the Sun-like star HD 85512 in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sail). This planet is about 3.6 times as massive as the Earth and lies at the edge of the habitable zone around the star, where liquid
This artist's impression shows the planet orbiting the Sun-like star HD 85512 in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sail). This planet is about 3.6 times as massive as the Earth and lies at the edge of the habitable zone around the star, where liquid
Jessica Berman

European scientists say a small, rocky planet they've discovered orbiting a distant star is the smallest and most Earth-like planet ever found and might be capable of supporting life.  The alien world is one of a record bounty of 50 exoplanets (planets outside our solar system), including 16 so-called "super-Earths" reported recently by European planet-hunters.  

The rocky exoplanet orbits a parent star called "HD85512," located 35 light years from earth. The alien world is known by the suffix "b" after the star's name, and it is one of a class of exoplanets known as "super-Earths", rocky worlds no more than 10 times the mass of Earth. The new-found planet is about three-and-half times more massive than Earth.

Lisa Kaltenegger is with the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts. “Up to about ten earth masses we actually think a planet can be rocky and, thus, could potentially be like our own planet," she said.

HD85512-b was discovered by Kaltenegger and a team of astronomers leading Europe’s High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planetary Search, or HARPS, Project.  

Using the European South Observatory’s La Silla telescope in Chile, the HARPS planet hunters found planet "b" orbiting its parent star, a sun slightly smaller and cooler than our own, at a distance of 150 million kilometers [93.2 million miles]. That is almost the same distance between the Earth and the Sun, putting the alien planet within what astronomers call the “habitable zone.”

Astronomers believe a planet in the habitable zone is at just the right distance from its sun so that the planet's surface temperature is neither too hot nor too cold.  They say conditions on planet "b" might permit the existence of liquid water, which is essential for supporting life.

The only way planetary scientists can determine whether life could exist on the planet is by reading in its light the chemical signatures of water and various gases associated with living organisms, such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, methane and ozone.

But astronomers say that because planet "b" is so far away, and its potential atmosphere is just a thin layer on a rocky sphere, current telescopes are not powerful enough to read any of its chemical signatures.  For that, they say, they will need the European Extremely Large Telescope, or E-ELT.  Construction on the one-billion dollar instrument begins next year.  When it is completed, the 40-meter ground-based optical and near-infrared telescope will be the largest of its kind in the world, gathering 15 times more light than any existing telescope, including the Hubble Space Telescope.  

E-ELT will contain an optical spectrograph that will analyze the contents of planet "b’s" and other exoplanets' atmosphere by dividing up incoming light, with each element in the planet's atmosphere reflecting a different color in the visible light spectrum.

Kaltenegger says it’s an exciting time for exoplanetary scientists. “We are really going out there in a way with our telescopes to discover brand new worlds.  And we can do this within our own generation," she said.

So far, a total of more than  600 extra-solar planets have been discovered in nearby solar systems, 150 of them by the HARPS team alone.  But most have been large gas giants orbiting stars well beyond the habitable zone.  In 2007, the HARPS project found the only other super-Earth, a large rocky planet nearly eight times the mass of Earth, orbiting on the outer edge of its star's habitable zone.

The discovery of 50 new exo-planets, including HD85512-b, the smallest and most promising super-Earth yet, was presented Monday at a Wyoming conference on Extreme Solar Systems.

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs