28 Mar 2012

Artists impression showing a sunset seen from the super-Earth Gliese 667 Cc.  The brightest star is red dwarf Gliese 667 C part of a triple star system.  The other stars are Gliese 667 A and B.  Estimates show there are tens of billions of rocky worlds around faint red dwarf stars in the Milk Way.  (CREDIT:  ESO/L. Calcada)
Artists impression showing a sunset seen from the super-Earth Gliese 667 Cc. The brightest star is red dwarf Gliese 667 C part of a triple star system. The other stars are Gliese 667 A and B. Estimates show there are tens of billions of rocky worlds around faint red dwarf stars in the Milk Way. (CREDIT: ESO/L. Calcada)

A new study has shown that in our Milky Way galaxy alone, there should be billions of habitable, rocky planets around faint red stars called red dwarfs.  These red dwarfs are thought to make up about 80% of the stars in our galaxy.

Astronomers using the European Southern Observatory telescope observed 102 of the most common stars, red dwarfs, in our galaxy over six years.  They came up with an estimate of the planets in the habitable zones around each star.

About 40 percent of the red dwarfs have super-Earths.  These are planets with masses between one and ten times the mass of Earth.  These planets exist in the "just right zone" where they aren't too close or too far from their host star and where liquid water can exist. 

160 billion red dwarfs, the fainter and cooler/longer lasting stars than the Sun exist in the Milky Way according to research team leader Xavier Bonfils.  Bonfils is of the University of Grenoble in France.  He stated, ''Because red dwarfs are so common this leads us to the astonishing result that there are tens of billions of these planets in our galaxy alone."  There are probably 100 of these super-Earths within 30 light years of Earth, he said.

The problem with red dwarfs is that they have eruptions and flares.  The x-rays and ultraviolet radiation released by these stars may reduce the chances of life existing there, the researchers indicated.

One planet in the study, is closest to our own, that of Gliese 667 Cc.  Gliese 667 Cc is about four times the mass of the Earth.  The new findings will be described in the a paper published in an upcoming issue of the journal of Astronomy & Astrophysics.

The Tech-Stew Take Home

Over the course of 16 years, astronomers have now detected 763 extra-solar planets (outside our solar system), many of them have massive planets like Jupiter or Saturn, more than 100 times the size of Earth.  These planetary giants, however, are rarely found around red dwarfs.

Now that we have identified these potential life harboring planets, the next step is to use instruments to determine the compositions of the atmospheres on these alien worlds.  These findings continue to change how we look at our small blue globe in this very large universe.

Source:  smh.com.au, space.com


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