New Robotic Telescope Discovers Three Super-Earths Orbiting a Nearby Star

First Posted: Apr 29, 2015 06:45 AM EDT

Astronomers have made a startling discovery in a nearby galaxy. They've found a planetary system orbiting a star that's only 54 light-years away; all three of the planets are "super Earths," and orbit their star at a distance closer than Mercury orbits the sun.

The researchers first discovered the new planets by detecting the wobble of the star HD 7924 as the planets orbited and pulled on the star gravitationally. The ground-based observatories traced out the planet's orbits over many years using the Doppler technique.

Part of the success of the new discovery is the Automated Planet Finder (APF) Telescope in California. The new APF facility offers a way to speed up the planet search, since it's a dedicated facility that robotically searchers for planets every clear night.

The new planets are what astronomers expect to find around many nearby stars in the coming years.

"The three planets are unlike anything in our solar system, with masses 7 to 8 times the mass of Earth and orbits that take them very close to their host star," said Lauren Weiss, one of the researchers, in a news release.

These findings, though, are only the beginning. The robotic observations are the start of a systematic survey for super-Earth planets orbiting nearby stars. When the census is complete, the researchers will have a map of small planets orbiting sun-like stars within about 100 light-years of Earth.

The findings reveal a bit more about our surrounding universe. This, in turn, may help astronomers better understand other planets and may even aid the hunt for extraterrestrial life.

The findings are published in the Astrophysical Journal.

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