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Artist impression of ‘super-Earth’ trio (courtesy, ESO)

For the first time in history, scientists have discovered three Earth-sized planets orbiting a solitary star that is slightly less massive than the sun.

Astronomers believe the planets, called “super-Earths,” could be very similar in composition and size to Earth itself, more so than any other planet in our solar system.

The smallest of the trio is approximately four times the size of Earth, and scientists believe its blistering climate is far too hot to sustain life.

The “super-Earths” are only three new additions to a list of 45 planet candidates with a mass below 30 Earth masses and an orbital period of less than 50 days, the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere, or ESO, reports.

“Does every single star harbour planets and, if yes, how many?” planet hunter Michel Mayor from Geneva Observatory said. “We may not yet know the answer but we are making huge progress towards it.”


A new instrument called the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher, or HARPS spectrograph, is located in the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in the desert in Chile. It has enabled astronomers to study hundreds of stars previously believed to be without planets.

More than 270 exoplanets, or planets orbiting stars other than the sun, have been found around solar-like stars since 1995. Most are considered “giants” and are comparable to Jupiter or Saturn, but few have been close to the size of Earth.

The ESO estimates one out of 14 stars has an exoplanet – indicating that there are far more planets in the universe than scientists previously thought.

 


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