Fifteen New Planets Discovered in Habitable Zones –”Earth-Sized Moons Prime Life Candidates”
January 7, 2013 in Science
Fifteen new planets have been discovered orbiting in the habitable zones of other stars by volunteers from the Oxford University-led Zooniverse project, adding to the 19 similar planets already discovered in habitable zones, where the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water. The new finds suggest that there may be a ‘traffic jam’ of all kinds of strange worlds in regions that could potentially support life.
‘There’s an obsession with finding Earth-like planets but what we are discovering, with planets such as PH2 b, is far stranger,’ said Zooniverse lead Dr Chris Lintott of Oxford University. ‘Jupiter has several large water-rich moons – imagine dragging that system into the comfortably warm region where the Earth is. If such a planet had Earth size moons, we’d see not Europa and Callisto but worlds with rivers, lakes and all sorts of habitats – a surprising scenario that might just be common.’
Rather than being seen directly, the new planet candidates were found by Planethunters.org volunteers looking for a telltale dip in the brightness as planets pass in front of their parent stars. One of the 15, a Jupiter-sized planet orbiting a Sun-like star, has been officially confirmed as a planet (with 99.9% certainty) after follow-up work with the Keck telescope in Hawai’i and has been named ‘PH2 b’. It is the second confirmed planet to be found by Planethunters.org.
‘We are seeing the emergence of a new era in the Planet Hunters project where our volunteers seem to be at least as efficient as the computer algorithms at finding planets orbiting at habitable zone distances from the host stars,” said Planethunters lead scientist Professor Debra Fisher of Yale University. “Now, the hunt is not just targeting any old exoplanet – volunteers are homing in on habitable worlds.’
Lead author Dr Ji Wang, also of Yale University, said: ‘We can speculate that PH2 b might have a rocky moon that would be suitable for life. I can’t wait for the day when astronomers report detecting signs of life on other worlds instead of just locating potentially habitable environments. That could happen any day now.’
‘These are planet candidates that slipped through the net, being missed by professional astronomers and rescued by volunteers in front of their web browsers,” said Lintott.” It’s remarkable to think that absolutely anyone can discover a planet.’
“In general, we have shown that we are not quite as unique as we once thought. Our solar system closely resembles other observable planetary systems within our galaxy. In this way, our results serve to corroborate other research results which indicate that earth-like planets are more widespread in the universe than previously believed,” says Professor Martin Bizzarro, head of the Centre for Star and Planet Formation at University of Copenhagen.
A report of the research has been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal and is released via arxiv.org.