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New Planet Discovered; Most "Earth-Like" Yet

The most Earth-like planet yet discovered beyond the solar system has been detected orbiting a distant star, boosting the chances that life exists elsewhere in the galaxy.

The icy, rocky world is just five times larger than our own, making it the smallest and most similar to Earth of all the 160 "exoplanets" around other stars that astronomers have found so far.

The planet, which has been given the unglamorous name OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, is considered an unlikely candidate for life, as it has a surface temperature of -220C (-364F) that precludes the presence of the liquid water thought necessary to sustain organisms.

Nevertheless, the discovery is an important breakthrough in the search for extra-terrestrial life, as it suggests that small, rocky planets like the Earth are relatively common around other stars.

If similar worlds are found to exist orbiting in the "habitable zones" of solar systems with suitably moderate temperatures, they would be prime candidates for supporting extra-terrestrial life.

Most of the exoplanets discovered to date are gas giants, similar in size or larger than Jupiter.

"The new planet confirms that we can now find small cool planets down to the mass of the Earth," said Professor Keith Horne of the University of St Andrews, a member of the international team that identified the planet.

"Our next goal is to find more of them, with lower masses, in order to measure the abundance of cool Earths and determine if habitable planets like Earth are abundant or rare. If the abundance is high, the next step is to search for life on those planets."

Michael Turner of the US National Science Foundation, which supported the research, said: "This is an important breakthrough in the quest to answer the question,

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Posted in: News by NewsBot on February 6, 2006 @ 12:00 AM

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