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Using the High Accuracy Radical velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrograph instrument at the 3.6m La Silla Observatory on the outskirts of the extremely dry Chilean Atacama desert, European astronomers on Monday 12th September 2011 announced the largest ever discovery of exoplanets at one time.

In total 50 new planets beyond our solar system have been found, including 16 so-called Super-Earths. These types of planets are of special interest as they are larger than our own Earth but not as large as gas giants such as Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. If the right environment exists on a Super-Earth, for example positioned inside its star’s "Goldilocks" zone with appropriate surface, temperature and atmospheric conditions then a potential habitable world may exist.

But what particularly excites the astronomers about the recent discoveries is one of the 16 new Super-Earths, HD 85512 b. Located 36 light years from Earth in the constellation of Vela, HD 85512 b is estimated to have a mass of only about 3.6 times that of the Earth and a temperature of around 25 degrees Celsius. It is close enough to be just inside the "Goldilocks" zone and hence the conditions are just right for the possibility of liquid water to exist on its surface and perhaps life itself.

Artists’s impression of HD 85512 b (ESO/M.Kornmesser)

Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva, Switzerland, and the leader of the HARPS team said in a press release, "The detection of HD 85512 b is far from the limit of HARPS and demonstrates the possibility of discovering other Super-Earths in the habitable zones around stars similar to the Sun".

Team member, Lisa Kaltenegger, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and the Harvard Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, added "We are actually entering an incredibly interesting time in our history" and commented that the latest round of findings marked a new age in the search for habitable planets.

However, astronomers cautioned that it would take years and more powerful telescopes before a search for signs of life could be undertaken.

The new findings were presented at the Extreme Solar Systems conference in Wyoming, United States, and will appear in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

HD 85512 (ESO Digitized Survey 2)

HD 85512 Data Table

StarHD 85512
ConstellationVela
RA (J2000)09h 51m 07s
DEC (J2000)-43d 30m 10s
Apparent Magnitude7.66
Distance (light-years)36
Spectral TypeK5 V
Mass (Solar)0.69
Temperature (K)4715
Age (Million Years)5610

HD 85512b Data Table

PlanetHD 85512 b
DiscoveryAugust 17th 2011
Min. mass (Earth mass)3.6
Temperature (K)298
Semimajor axis (AU)0.26
Orbital period (days)54.43
Orbital speed (km/s)94.91
Eccentricity0.11