American scientists say they have discovered two of the smallest planets ever detected outside our solar system - a sign, they said, that they are on the right track in the quest to find Earth-like planets that could potentially support life.
Until the past few weeks, all of the estimated 130 planets detected in other star systems were believed to be gaseous, Jupiter-sized planets that could not sustain life as we know it. That changed with the discovery last week of a Neptune-sized planet by a European team, and with the news on Tuesday that two similar planets - estimated at 14 to 18 times the size of Earth - had been detected, writes International Herald Tribune.
According to the Times of India, the universe looked a little more familiar and friendlier. The roll call of planets beyond the solar system swelled significantly with the announcement of a trio of newly-discovered worlds much smaller than any previously discovered around other stars.
The previous planets found around living stars other than the Sun have been giants like Jupiter or Saturn, at least 50 times the mass of Earth, composed of gas at crushing pressures and scorchingly high temperatures and unlikely abodes for life. Astronomers said the new planets might be "ice giants" like Uranus and Neptune, or even giant hunks of iron and rock dubbed "super-Earths". Like those previously discovered planets, the new ones are circling too close to their stars to be viable for life.
But their discovery, astronomers said, is an encouraging sign that planets are plentiful and varied in the galaxy and that a new generation of planet-hunting space missions planned for the next decade will find planets as small as Earth.
"We're getting closer to answering the golden question of whether there is life out there," said Dr Geoff Marcy, an astronomer and long-time planet hunter at the University of California, Berkeley.
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