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Arrow Right Astronomers Discover New Planets like Earth

Planets like Earth Existed Near old Star: Astronomers Discover Evidence of Planets Beyond our Solar System

  • Shattered remains of asteroid discovered 150 light years away from the Earth
  • It is the first time that both water and a rocky surface have been found beyond our solar system
  • Scientists believe it is a glimpse into the distant future of our own corner of the universe
By Daily Mail UK, 11 October 2013


Life may really be out there.

Astronomers have found the first evidence of habitable planets outside our own solar system.
The discovery of the shattered remains of an asteroid which once contained huge amounts of water - crucial for life - has left scientists ‘incredibly excited’.
It suggests that hundreds of millions of years ago, the distant system may have harboured Earth-like planets.




An artist's impression shows a rocky and water-rich asteroid being torn apart by the strong gravity of the
white dwarf star GD 61.She shattered remains of the asteroid have been discovered 150 million light years from Earth


But any potential inhabitants would be long since left the region - either extinct or mastering space travel - as their sun blew up and then collapsed into a ‘white dwarf’.
Now all that remains are rocky bodies orbiting the dead star.
Scientists believe it is a glimpse into the distant future of our own corner of the universe, after the Sun finally burns out. But there is no need for alarm - the end is still several billion years away.

Professor Boris Gänsicke of the Department of Physics at the University of Warwick said: ‘It is the first time we have found a rocky body that also contains water outside our solar system.

‘Those two ingredients - a rocky surface and water - are key in the hunt for habitable planets outside our solar system, so it’s very exciting to find them together outside our solar system.
‘What this means is that we have the building blocks of what makes planets like Earth.’ He said it was too early to speculate if the region supported alien life, and that if it had existed, it would be long departed following the collapse of the sun.




.....



The images, captured by the Hubble space telescope, are said to give a glimpse into the distant
future of our own corner of the universe, after the Sun finally burns out


‘At this stage in its existence, all that remains of this rocky body is simply dust and debris that has been pulled into the orbit of its dying parent star,’ he said.
‘However this planetary graveyard swirling around the embers of its parent star is a rich source of information about its former life. In these remnants lie chemical clues which point towards a previous existence as a water-rich terrestrial body.’

The research, which appears in the journal Science and was made using Nasa’s Hubble telescope, looked at the light emitted by GD 61. The region located 150 light years away from the Earth.

Astronomers detected an abundance of ‘rocky’ elements such as magnesium, silicon and iron, and also found oxygen in quantities that indicated a large amounts of water.

Only a water-rich massive asteroid, or minor planet, can explain the observations, they claimed.




The discovery suggests that hundreds of millions of years ago, the distant system may have harboured Earth-like planets


Earth is essentially a ‘dry’ planet, with only 0.02 per cent of its mass made up of surface water. Our oceans only formed after the planet was formed, likely a result of water-rich asteroids or comets crashed into us.
The latest findings suggest something similar could have happened in this distant solar system.
Lead author Jay Farihi, from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, said: ‘The finding of water in a large asteroid means the building blocks of habitable planets existed - and maybe still exist - in the GD 61 system, and likely also around substantial number of similar parent stars.

‘These water-rich building blocks, and the terrestrial planets they build, may in fact be common - a system cannot create things as big as asteroids and avoid building planets, and GD 61 had the ingredients to deliver lots of water to their surfaces.




Under the weather: Kepler-7b is the first exoplanet to have its clouds mapped.


‘Our results demonstrate that there was definitely potential for habitable planets in this exoplanetary system.’

Scientists believe that the universe could be teeming with planets that are able to support life.

Latest NASA estimates suggest that there could be as many as 60 million habitable planets.

Data taken from the Kepler telescope, which has spent several years exploring exoplanets outside of the solar system, had suggested that there could be at least one planet that is capable of supporting life close to each red dwarf.

But that theory has since been revised as NASA scientists now also believe that cloud cover could potentially help a planet support life.

In order for life to occur on a planet, it needs to be within the habitable zone of a star - that is close enough for water on its surface to stay in its liquid form.





The great beyond: NASA have discovered dozens of exoplanets, including the extremely hot WASP-12b and its
host star, pictured. But this is the first time that they have found the basic ingredients for a habitable planet


If a planet is too close to its star, the water vapourises as it is too hot. But if it is too far away, the water freezes.

Thanks to exploration from telescopes such as Kepler and the Spitzer telescope, scientists' knowledge of planets outside our solar system is becoming increasingly sophisticated.

Last week NASA released the first ever map of cloud cover on an exoplanet - Kepler-7b.

The image offered a first look at clouds on hot Jupiter-like planet Kepler-7b which is some 1,000 light-years away from the Earth.

The Kepler telescope has discovered more than 150 confirmed planets outside the solar system.

The telescope's problematic reaction wheels prevent it from hunting planets any more, but astronomers continue to pore over almost four years' worth of collected data from the planets already discovered.

It is hoped that the same cloud-mapping techniques can be used to observe smaller Earth-like worlds.
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