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4/22/2009
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Planetary System Discovered That Could Support Life

Planet Gliese 581 "e" orbits its host star in just over three days and is nearly 21 light-years away from the constellation Libra, researchers said.

Researchers said they have discovered a planetary system with an Earth-like planet and one that could contain oceans in a habitable zone.

The findings come as a result of more than four years of observations using the HARPS spectrograph, which is attached to a high-powered telescope in Chile. They raise intrigue about whether one of the planets within the system could support life.

"The holy grail of current exoplanet research is the detection of a rocky, Earth-like planet in the 'habitable zone' -- a region around the host star with the right conditions for water to be liquid on a planet's surface," Michel Mayor, who leads a European team at the Geneva Observatory, said in a statement this week.

Researchers said the planet "e" in the Gliese 581 system is about twice the mass of Earth. Planet Gliese 581 e orbits its host star in just over three days and is nearly 21 light-years away from the constellation Libra, researchers said.

"With only 1.9 Earth-masses, it is the least massive exoplanet ever detected and is, very likely, a rocky planet," Xavier Bonfils from Grenoble Observatory said in a statement.

The system is well within a habitable zone where oceans could exist, but scientists don't think that planet is in the habitable zone. Another planet nearby, Gliese 581 d, is.

"Gliese 581 d is probably too massive to be made only of rocky material, but we can speculate that it is an icy planet that has migrated closer to the star," team member Stephane Udry said in a prepared statement.

That planet could host large and deep bodies of water, Udry said.

Mayor said that observers have made tremendous progress since discovering the first exoplanet around a normal star in 1995.


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