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European astronomers discover second potentially habitable planet

by Jorge Hernandez on September 14, 2011

Astronomers have long been searching for life outside the solar system and a group in Europe believe they have found another planet that may be able to harbor terrestrial life. Known only as HD 85512b, the planet is one of two scientists believe are in what they refer to as the "habitable zone," Discovery News reports.

The planet was found as a result of the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), which is housed at the European Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile. The discovery is one of 50 others that included 16 so-called Super Earths, which are planets that are much higher in mass than Earth but below the gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn.

As for HD 85512b, the planet is orbiting a star about 36 light-years away from Earth and is located in the constellation Vela. Additionally, it is about 3.6 times the mass of Earth and sits much closer to its star than the Earth does to the sun, making a complete rotation in just 60 days. However, the star is significantly cooler than the sun is. What is especially encouraging about the planet is its relatively low mass.

"This is the lowest-mass confirmed planet discovered by the radial velocity method that potentially lies in the habitable zone of its star, and the second low-mass planet discovered by HARPS inside the habitable zone," exoplanet expert Lisa Kaltenegger told the website.

While the discovery is certainly encouraging for those looking for extraterrestrial life, there remains a number of questions. For instance, since HARPS looks for planets by detecting shifts in target stars' frequencies, it can only determine the mass and not the physical size or composition of the planet.

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