Tue, Feb 17, 2009 - Page 7 News List

AAAS MEETING: Earth-like planets in our neighborhood: scientists

AFP , CHICAGO

Earth-like planets that have life-sustaining conditions are spinning around stars in our galactic neighborhood, US astrophysicists say. They just haven’t been found yet.

“There are something like a few dozen solar-type stars within something like 30 light years of the sun, and I would think that a good number of those, perhaps half of them, have Earth-like planets,” Alan Boss told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AASS).

“So I think there is a very good chance that we will find some Earth-like planets within 10, 20 or 30 light years of the Sun,” the astrophysicist from the Carnegie Institution for Science told his AAAS colleagues meeting in Chicago since Thursday.

One light year equals the distance light travels in one year at the speed of 300,000km per second, or 9.46 trillion kilometers.

Boss is convinced that the Earth-sized planets could be found either by the Kepler space telescope that NASA plans to launch on March 5, or by COROT, the French-European telescope-equipped satellite that has been in orbit since 2006.

“I will be absolutely astonished if Kepler or COROT didn’t find any earth-like planets, because basically we are finding them already,” Boss told a press conference on Saturday when asked why he felt so confident.

COROT has already discovered the smallest extraterrestrial planet so far. At a little over twice the Earth’s diameter, the planet is very close to its star and very hot, astronomers reported earlier this month.

Boss said Kepler and COROT will likely find so many Earth-like planets that they will “tell us how to go ahead and build the next space telescope to go and examine these planets, after we know they are there.”

The images from those new planets, he said, should identify “light from their atmosphere and tell us if they have perhaps methane and oxygen. That will be pretty strong proof they are not only habitable but actually are inhabited.”

“I am not talking about a planet with intelligence on it ... At least we will have microbes,” Boss said.

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