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Astronomers Discover Earth-like Planet Outside Solar System

European astronomers have discovered what they believe to be the first potentially habitable planet outside our solar system. The researchers say the planet could contain water, which is needed to support life as we know it. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

Gliese 581 C, as astrophysicists have named it, is about five times heavier than Earth. The newly discovered planet orbits a, very small red dwarf or star, Gliese 581, in the constellation Libra about 20.5 light years away.

Geneva University's Michel Mayor, along with Portuguese and French colleagues, discovered Gliese 581 C using the European Southern Observatory's telescope in Chile.

By watching the planet's gravitational impact on the red dwarf, the scientists concluded the temperature of the planet is a habitable 0 to 40 degrees Celsius.

If true, astrophysicists say in all likelihood there's water on Gliese 581 C, but they say more solar observations are needed.

While there's no way to actually tell whether there's water on the planet, Mayor says evidence of water has been found in less hospitable space environments, such as Mars and Jupiter.

"So, water is not so much exceptional," said Mr. Mayor. "But what is more specific is you have a planet with a good temperature. So, you have the possibility to have liquid water on such a planet."

Scientists have identified about 220 planets outside the solar system. But observers say Gliese 581 C may be the most attractive candidate for space exploration, because of its relative short distance from Earth and the possibility of water on its surface.