October 20, 2009
(PLANETQUEST) — European astronomers this week announced the discovery of 32 new worlds – including a handful of so-called “super Earths” – bringing the total exoplanet tally to over 400.
The latest batch of exoplanets was discovered by an international team of astronomers using the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), the spectrograph for ESO’s 3.6-metre telescope in La Silla, Chile. With more than 75 exoplanet discoveries to its credit, the instrument has become a powerful tool for planet hunters.
Perhaps even more exciting to scientists than the big numbers are the increasingly small planets being found. Several of the worlds recently discovered with HARPS are just a few times larger than Earth, marking progress toward the ultimate goal of detecting small, terrestrial planets. However, none of the planets announced last week are considered habitable.
Finding small, rocky planets that might resemble Earth is a key goal for NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which is currently scanning thousands of distant stars for signs of transiting exoplanets.
Written by Joshua Rodriguez/PlanetQuest