Discovering another Earth - Ka Leo O Hawaii: News

Discovering another Earth

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Posted: Wednesday, February 15, 2012 5:00 am

It's been a long time since elementary school, when there were nine planets in the solar system and no more. Pluto has been demoted, and scientists have been busy discovering new planets that vary in size and atmospheric conditions - including a planet described as a "super-Earth" that could support life.

Approximately 130 planets have been detected in the deepest reaches of our galaxy, orbiting dwarf stars that are about three times smaller than our sun. The recently discovered super-Earth orbits the dwarf star GJ 667Cb. The discovery was made by a team of scientists that includes Nader Haghighipour, an astronomer at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Institute for Astronomy.

"With the current technology, we don't know whether life actually exists on the planet or not, but based on the distance between the planet and the star and calculating what the temperature should be compared to Earth, then we can say that planet should have the capability to support life as well," Haghighipour explained. "It is too far to send anything. What we can do is as technology advances, we will be able to monitor it better, and get a better handle of that specific planet."

Early studies suggest that this planet has the capability to support water, making it one of approximately 30 that may be able to support life.

This new planet, named GJ 667Cc, is about 22 lightyears away and only receives 90 percent of the light that Earth receives. Most of its incoming light is heat, or infrared light, and a higher percentage of this incoming energy should be absorbed by the planet. This means that GJ 667Cc should absorb about the same amount of energy from its star as Earth absorbs from the sun, creating similar surface temperatures and perhaps liquid water.

The star and the planet are monitored consistently at Mauna Kea and at Haleakalā observatories. GJ 667Cb, the dwarf star, has two planets orbiting it, but the newly discovered one is close enough and has the right characteristics to be considered habitable. "The type of the star is different than our sun. The surface temperature of this star is less than 50 percent of our sun. Because these types of stars (scientists call them M stars) are smaller, planets are going to be closer to the star, much closer than Earth is to the sun. And in order for the planet to suppo[prt liquid water, it needs to be close to the star. These types of stars are within the sensitivity range of the Mauna Kea telescope," Haghighipour said.

"It opens a new chapter in the whole planet-hunting system," he continued. "We used to think our solar system was the only one out there, but with new discoveries, we are learning our planetary system is not typical. We are now seeing that solar systems may not just be around the stars, but planets could be orbiting around anything that produces heat."

What: Presentation by Haghighipour

Where: UH Mānoa Art Auditorium

When: Tuesday, March 13; 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Free and open to the public