European astronomers announced they had found a “super-Earth” orbiting a star some 50 light years away, a finding that could significantly boost the hunt for worlds beyond our Solar System.
The planet was spotted orbiting a Sun-like star, mu Arae, which is located in a southern constellation called the Altar and which is bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, they said. […]
With few exceptions, the extrasolar planets spotted so far have approximated the size of Jupiter, the giant of the Solar System.
But this latest find is far smaller, with a mass of only 14 times that of the Earth, which puts it in the same ballpark as Uranus for size.
The big difference, though, is that Uranus is an uninhabitable hell, a gassy planet on the far frigid fringes of the Solar System, whereas the new planet appears to be a rocky planet, as the Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury are, and orbits in a much balmier region.
It has a gassy atmosphere, amounting to about a tenth of its mass, although what this consists of is so far unknown.
The object qualifies “as a ‘super-Earth,” the ESO said.
Much about this enigmatic world remains to be uncovered, least of all whether it may be habitable.
However, there is the tantalising question as to whether it lies within the “Goldilocks Zone” – a distance from its star that is not too hot, not too cold, just right.
In this zone, a planet would be close enough to the star to have liquid water – yet not so close that its oceans would boil away – and not so far that its oceans would freeze. That is one of the prime conditions for creating and sustaining life, according to a leading theoretical model. […]