Astronomers discover planet that could support life

NASA, NSF-funded research spots planet that could sustain life

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Astronomers have found a planet, or exoplanet 20 light years away and up to four times the mass of Earth that could sustain life.

If confirmed, this would be the most Earth-like exoplanet yet discovered and the first strong case for a potentially habitable one said astronomers from the University of California (UC) Santa Cruz, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington who made the discovery.  The discovery was the result of more than 10 years of observations using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

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The planet designated Gliese 581g  is what astronomers called  tidally locked to the star, meaning that one side is always facing the star, while the side facing away from the star is in perpetual darkness. One effect of this is to stabilize the planet's surface climates and it  could have liquid water on its surface, according to Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz.   The planet has a 37 day orbit around its star.  The most habitable zone on the planet's surface would be the line between shadow and light (known as the "terminator").

The astronomers also reported discovering  two new planets around Gliese 581. This brings the total number of known planets around this star to six, the most yet discovered in a planetary system other than our own solar system. Like our solar system, the planets around Gliese 581 have nearly circular orbits, the astronomers stated.

The  astronomers noted that  a "potentially habitable" planet is one that could sustain life, not necessarily one where humans would thrive. Habitability depends on many factors, but having liquid water and an atmosphere are among the most important, researchers said.

The  research was supported by National Science Foundation and NASA grants.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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