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Potentially habitable 'Super-Earth' discovered

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Potentially habitable 'super-Earth' discovered just 31 light-years away

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Astronomers announced Wednesday that they had discovered the nearest potentially habitable planet outside our solar system.

The newfound exoplanet — a so-called super-Earth named GJ 357 d — lies 31 light-years away from our solar system. It’s about six times more massive than our planet and orbits in its host star’s habitable zone, where water could exist in liquid form on the surface.

There’s no evidence at this point that life exists on the exoplanet, only that conditions there could support life as we know it.

“It’s a distance from the star that is not too hot and not too cold,” said Lisa Kaltenegger, an associate professor of astronomy and director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The findings, published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, were presented Wednesday at an exoplanet conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Kaltenegger, who co-authored a study about the newfound exoplanet, said the discovery was totally unexpected. “It was like a freebie, because it was discovered in the follow-up,” she said of an analysis of observational data obtained from NASA’s planet-hunting TESS satellite and ground-based telescopes. “I was on vacation at the time, and I was completely surprised.”

Using TESS, a $337-million spacecraft that was launched in April 2018, the astronomers had detected another planet orbiting the same star, known as GJ 357. When they used ground-based telescopes at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands and the University of La Laguna to conduct follow-up research on that planet, known as GJ 357 b, the scientists found two more planets in the system, including GJ 357 d.

Courtesy NBC News | USA Today

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