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Images: NASA hunts for a new Earth

As the number of planets spotted outside our solar system nears 200, NASA searches for one that's similar to Earth.
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Red-hot planet

NASA is searching the galaxy for Earth--or at least a planet that is similar to our home planet. The space agency has several ongoing projects to identify new planets outside our solar system and then will send space missions to study the planets and hopefully find one that is similar to Earth.

The Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search (SWEEPS) project conducted by the Hubble Space Telescope recently found 16 new planets. This illustration shows what one of them may look like--a giant, Jupiter-sized exoplanet that orbits an unnamed red dwarf star.

This red-hot planet is just 750,000 miles from its star and orbits every 10.5 hours. Scientists speculate that a planet that large and close to a star could have a powerful magnetic field that would trap particles from the sun, creating auroral rings.

The latest findings brings the total of known planets outside our solar system to 199.

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SWEEPS area

TV can have a sweeps period so why can't the Hubble Space Telescope? In this SWEEPS survey, the Hubble studied 180,000 stars in the crowded central bulge of the Milky Way galaxy 26,000 light-years away from Earth.

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locations of newly found planets

The top image, which shows half of the surveyed area, displays nine different stars, circled in green, that contain planets. The planets were discovered as they blocked light when crossing in front of their sun.

The bottom image shows where astronomers were able to locate a planet due to the star's back and forth wobble caused by the planet's gravity.

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Transit

This image shows a Jupiter-sized planet in transit across its home star. Telescopes on Earth can detect the planet by the amount of light it blocks from the star.

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Sleuth

Last month, a new NASA "Sleuth" telescope, equipped with a 4-inch camera lens and a digital camera, discovered a planet 500 light years away from Earth. The planet will provide a target for further study by a Sleuth telescope as part of NASA's Kepler mission which is scheduled to launch in 2008. The mission is to study a single patch of sky for four years to detect planets and gain more information about them.

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Sim PlanetQuest

NASA's Sim PlanetQuest is slated to identify nearby Earth-like planets that will be further examined by Terrestrial Planet Finder observatories to determine whether a planet is inhabitable or not. It is scheduled to launch within the next decade.

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Terrestrial Planet Finders

The Terrestrial Planet Finder Coronagraph and the Terrestrial Planet Finder Interferometer will check the data from Sim PlantQuest and also try to find more new planets. Their instruments will determine whether light from a planet outside our solar system is similar to the light from Earth.

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Upsilon Andromedae b

NASA is also beginning to find out details about known planets outside our solar system. The Spitzer Space Telescope used heat-sensitive infrared technology to study the planet Upsilon Andromedae b--one of three known planets that orbit Upsilon Andromedae 40 light-years away. The measurements showed that one side of the planet, which orbits its sun at one-sixth the distance from Mercury to our sun, is 2,550 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the other.

Left is an artist's conception of the Jupiter-like planet, Upsilon Andromedae b.

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Transiting planet

How to detect a transiting planet.

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Planet-finding projects

Today, there are many planet-finding projects around the world as shown on the map (left).

Here's a code to the colors which indicate the methods employed in each planet search:

Orange: Radial velocity (10)
Green: Planetary transit surveys (30)
Blue: Micro-licensing surveys (15)
Red: Imaging (6)
Yellow: Astronomy (18)

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