ESO Announces Three Super-Earths Orbiting Nearby Star

ESO Announces Three Super-Earths Orbiting Nearby Star

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced today that astronomers have discovered more planets around Gliese 667C, a star 22 light years away, and three of the planets are the much sought after Super Earths.

Scientists are searching the universe with both ground- and space-based telescopes for exoplanets – planets orbiting other stars.  In particular, they want to find exoplanets that might be habitable, meaning liquid water and rocky surfaces in a size-range somewhat similar to Earth.  For liquid water to exist, the planet needs to be within a certain distance of the star, called its habitable zone.

The announcement today is that astronomers have found three such planets orbiting Gliese 667C that are of an acceptable size:  more massive than Earth, but not as massive as Uranus or Neptune.

The three Super Earths are a subset of a total of seven planets orbiting that star, which itself is part of a triple-star system (Gliese 667 A, B and C) in the constellation Scorpius.  ESO released an artist’s rendition of what the sky might look like from the surface of one of the planets.  Gliese 667C is the largest of the three suns in the illustration below.

Artist’s impression of the Gliese 667C system.  Credit:  European Southern Observatory.

The findings were based on a combination of new observations and existing data about the Gliese system, which made headlines previously when three planets were discovered orbiting Gliese 667C.  The other four planets orbiting Gliese 667C are not considered habitable.  Astronomically speaking, it is close to our solar system — 22 light years away.  Scientists are excited to find so many potentially habitable planets since that suggests such planets are not rare, and to find them relatively nearby.

They combined data from several astronomical instruments including three in Chile — ESO’s HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) on its 3.6 meter telescope; ESO’s Very Large Telescope; and the U.S. Magellan Telescopes — and one in Hawaii, the U.S. Keck Observatory.

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