Observatory in Chile uncovers 50 new extra-solar planets

Astronomers now hope to compile a list of planets that have the potential to support life within the next 10 to 20 years.

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Astronomers have discovered more than 50 new planets beyond our solar system using the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectograph located on the edge of Chile’s Atacama Desert.

The latest discovery represents the largest number of extra-solar planets ever uncovered simultaneously, according to an official announcement from the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

Among the findings are 16 planets with a mass between one and ten times that of Earth, commonly known as Super-Earths. One, known as HD85512b, is believed to be only 3.6 times heavier than the Earth and is located on the edge of the habitable zone, a relatively narrow area around a star where liquid could be found.

“These planets will be among the best targets for future space telescopes to look for signs of life in the planet’s atmosphere by looking for chemical signatures such as evidence of oxygen,” said Francesco Pepe, a member of the HARPS project based at the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland.

Based on these results, the ESO believes it will be possible to compile a list of potentially habitable planets near our own Sun over the next 10 to 20 years.

The HARPS spectograph, which is attached to the ESO’s 9.7ft (3.6m) telescope at the La Silla Observatory in northern Chile, has been at the forefront of a number of major planetary discoveries. In the eight years that it has been exploring stars similar to our Sun, it has discovered 150 new planets.

“The harvest of discoveries from HARPS has exceeded all expectations and includes an exceptionally rich population of Super-Earths and Neptune-type planets hosted by stars very similar to our sun,” said HARPS project director, Michel Mayor from the University of Geneva, Switzerland. “And even better – the new results show that the pace of discovery is accelerating.”

One of the most active astronomical organizations in the world, the ESO operates several telescopes in Chile from the La Silla, Paranal and Llano de Chajnantor observatories.