Three "Super-Earths" Found Orbiting Sun-Like Star

June 16, 2008

A trio of "super-Earths" have been found near a sun-like star, a team of European astronomers announced today.

The planets orbiting the star HD 40307—which is 42 light-years away—were found using an advanced "planet searcher" instrument at the European Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile, the French and Swiss astronomers said.

The part of the sky being studied contains 45 potential planets that are smaller than 30 times the mass of Earth, the astronomers said. Most of them orbit HD 40307 quickly—every 50 days or less.

"We are convinced that there are plenty of planets everywhere," said Didier Queloz, a member of the research team from the Observatoire de Genève in Switzerland.

The discovery is creating a buzz throughout the astronomy community.

David Charbonneau, an exoplanet expert from Harvard University who was not involved with the new find, said it heralds a new age: "We have entered the Epoch of the Super-Earths," he said.

The announcement of HD 40307's planets came out of an international workshop called Extra Solar Super-Earths in Nantes, France.

Rapid Discovery

The study of exoplanets really didn't get under way until 1995, Queloz said.

That's about the time Queloz and his colleague Michel Mayor, also from Observatoire de Genève, discovered a planet around the star 51 Pegasi. Since then more than 270 exoplanets have been found, most of them around sun-like stars.

Many are giants like Jupiter or Saturn, and current statistics show that about 1 out of 14 stars harbors that kind of planet.

(Related story: "Top Five Stars That May Support Life Announced" [February 23, 2006])

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