Newly discovered "Super-Earth" may harbor life

A planet that's both very similar and very different to ours proves that there are quite a variety of ways that life can be nurtured.
Written by Tuan Nguyen, Contributor

As vast and lonely as the universe feels sometimes, scientists have long contended that somewhere out there are entire worlds teeming with life. Yet it's only very recently that such a notion has begun to feel more and more likely.

For instance, back in May, scientists discovered Gliese 581d, the first potentially habitable planet outside of our solar system. And since then, they've confirmed three more Earth-like planets, with the latest one being perhaps the most extra-terrestrially friendly of them all.

The discovery was made by a team of astronomers lead by Guillem Anglada-Escudé and Paul Butler at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC, which observed the planet orbiting an M-class dwarf star located a mere 22 light years away. While the planet's scientific name is GJ 667Cc, it's also been dubbed "Super-Earth" due to an ultra-hospitable orbital positioning that enables the surface to receive 90 percent of the light that Earth typically gets. And since most of the incoming light is infrared, a higher percentage of it is likely absorbed by the planet.

This means that the planet is expected to absorb about the same amount of energy from its star that the Earth absorbs from the Sun, which translates to similar surface temperatures and perhaps even bodies of water. "This planet is the new best candidate to support liquid water and, perhaps, life as we know it," Anglada-Escudé said.

However, that's where much of the similarities end. GJ 667Cc has an orbital period of 28.15 days (compared to the Earth's 365 day orbital period) and is about of 4.5 times the size of Earth. It's also part of a triple star system and even its sun has a different makeup than ours, all of which proves that as accommodating as our solar system is to us, there are quite a variety of ways that life can be nurtured.

The team also pointed out that the system might also contain a gas-giant planet and an additional super-Earth with an orbital period of 75 days. Further observations will be needed to confirm these two possibilities.

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