We always like to think that the planet Earth is singular, perhaps unique in its existence and that in the vast expanse of the universe there are none others like this pale blue planet. Of course, scientists, astronomers, writers and even the public would like to be proven wrong; the prospect of finding another ‘Earth’ is very exciting and may even lead to the discovery of extraterrestrial life.
And while hopes have been high, the universe, in its immensity, has often belied chances of the discovery of an Earth-like planet, but scientists have been hopeful and according to a recent study by an international team of astronomers, not only is the chance of discovering Earth-like planets very high, we may be in for a surprise, as these possible planets could be "super-earths" defined as planets that have 10 times the mass of Earth.
According to the team which works at the Silla observatory in Chile, the number of these super-earths based on their observations could run well into the billions. The team in question based the occurrence of the super-earths off of previous detections expanded to include the occurrence of red dwarf stars in the Milky Way.
The Silla team use "high-precision Harps instruments" that are attached to a 3.6 meter telescope at the Silla observatory. It is the Harps system that helps detect planets observing the effects that a planet’s gravity may have on its home star. Through this method, the Silla team have been able to detect countless new planets, some of which may be the fabled super-earths.
Speaking about their finding, Xavier Bonfils, lead astronomer of the Observatoire des Sciences de l'Univers de Grenoble in France, said, "Our new observations with Harps mean that about 40% of all red dwarf stars have a super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist on the surface of the planet. Because red dwarfs are so common - there are about 160 billion of them in the Milky Way - this leads us to the astonishing result that there are tens of billions of these planets in our galaxy alone.”
The results of the find, if ever proven, are quite astounding. The team studied a total of 102 red dwarfs and from the related planets, they were able to find a total of 9 super-earths, two of which were in the Goldilocks or habitable zone from their stars. According to the team's calculations, it was seen that in 41 percent of the cases, the super-earths discovered lied in habitable zones. The team also added that by simply assessing the red dwarfs in our own galaxy, the number of habitable super-earths within a range of 30 light years could easily be in the hundreds.
The Silla team’s Harps research will be appearing in the latest edition of the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.