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Exoplanet shock: Newly discovered worlds may harbour life 'Only a matter of time'

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The system of so-called super-Earth planets – possibly rocky worlds, but bigger than Earth itself – was detected orbiting the nearby star Gliese 887, 11 light-years away. An international team of astronomers spearheaded by Professor Carole Haswell and Dr John Barnes of The Open University made the groundbreaking discovery as part of Red Dots, which previously spotted planets orbiting Proxima Centauri, even closer at four light-years away.

An international team of astronomers spearheaded by Professor Carole Haswell and Dr John Barnes of The Open University made the groundbreaking discovery as part of Red Dots, which previously spotted planets orbiting Proxima Centauri, even closer at four light-years away.

Gliese 887 is the brightest red dwarf star in our sky and is about half the size of the Sun.

However, it is much dimmer, so its habitable zone, where water can exist in liquid form, is nearer to Gliese 887 than Earth’s is to the Sun.

The two new planets, know as Gliese 887b and Gliese 887c, were found using the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), which is a high-precision planet-finding spectrograph, on the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6m telescope at La Silla in Chile.

The findings prove what scientists had already suspected, namely that red dwarf stars typically harbour more than one planet.

Prof Haswell, Head of Astronomy at The Open University, said: “As a child in the 1960s one of my favourite TV series was Star Trek.

“It really makes me grin that the more we find out about our local Galactic neighbourhood, the more the Galaxy seems to resemble the one in Star Trek.

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If these planets reflect a similar amount of starlight to Earth, Gliese 887c, with an orbit of 21.8 days, has an estimated temperature of 70C, only slightly hotter than Earth.

Because the star is much less active than the Sun, there is much less in the way of stellar wind which might otherwise strip away the atmospheres of nearby planets, raising the tantalising property that both Gliese 887b and Gliese 887c and therefore represent good candidates to search for signs of life.

Dr Sandra Jeffers, of the Institute for Astrophysics, at Goettingen University, said: “These planets will provide the best possibilities for detailed studies including searching for evidence of life outside the Solar System.”

Gliese 887 will, therefore, be a prime target for the James Webb Space Telescope, a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope which is due to be launched next year.

In addition to the two new planets, in 2019, the Red Dots project announced a system of three planets orbiting another nearby red dwarf.

So far, a total of seven planets orbiting four of the nearest stars to the Sun have been discovered by the team.

Referring to an earlier project, Guillem Anglada-Escude, of Institute for Space Science in Spain explained: “Red Dots is the continuation of Pale Red Dot.

“It significantly contributed to Barnard´s b and detected another very nearby multi-planet system (GJ1061).

“It has important contributions from pro-amateur observers who observe the star while the large telescope measures the star’s wobble.”

The findings of the team are outlined in a report published today in the Science journal.



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