We are not alone: One in four stars ‘may have Earth-like planets in orbit around them’

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The Universe is teeming with planets capable of supporting alien life, according to a new study.

After studying stars similar to the Sun, astronomers found that almost one in four could have small, rocky planets just like the Earth.Many of these worlds may occupy the ‘Goldilocks’ zone – the region where conditions are neither too hot, nor too cold, for liquid water and possibly life. The findings mean that there could be tens of billions of planets like the Earth in our own galaxy alone – and trillions upon trillions of planet able to support life throughout the Universe.

Scientists came to the conclusion after spending five years studying 166 Sun-like stars within 80 light years – or 470 trillion miles – from the Earth.

Planets outside our own solar system are too far away and too small to see directly with telescopes.

Instead, astronomers study distant stars for tell-tale ‘wobbles’ – caused when stars are pulled by a planet’s gravity.

In the last decade, nearly 500 planets have been discovered outside the solar system this way.

The new study – published in the journal Science – found that Earth like planets were relatively common.

Dr Andrew Howard, from the University of California at Berkeley, said: ‘Of about 100 typical Sun-like stars, one or two have planets the size of Jupiter, roughly six have a planet the size of Neptune, and about 12 have super-Earths between three and 10 Earth masses.

‘If we extrapolate down to Earth-size planets – between one-half and two times the mass of Earth – we predict that you’d find about 23 for every 100 stars.’

The technique used by astronomers can only detect planets orbiting close to their stars. That means the true number of planets could be much higher.

Over the next decade, new methods of planet detection and more powerful telescopes could soon be uncovering true Earth-like worlds orbiting distant stars, the scientists said.

‘These results will transform astronomers’ views of how planets form,’ said Prof Geoffrey Marcy, another member of the Berkeley team and one of the world’s leading planet-hunters.

The astronomers used the twin 10-metre Keck telescopes in Hawaii to carry out their research on yellow G-type stars like the Sun, or slightly smaller orange-red stars known as K-type dwarfs.

Over the five years, 33 planets circling 22 stars were detected.

Prof Marcy is a member of the US space agency Nasa’s Kepler mission to survey 156,000 faint stars using a newer ‘transiting’ method of planet-spotting.

This involves measuring the minute dimming of starlight as a planet passes in front of its star.

The astronomers estimate that the Kepler space telescope will detect 120 to 260 ‘plausibly terrestrial worlds’ around some 10,000 nearby G and K dwarf stars.

Dr Howard said: ‘One of astronomy’s goals is to find ‘eta-Earth’, the fraction of Sun-like stars that have an Earth. This is a first estimate, and the real number could be one in eight instead of one in four. But it’s not one in 100, which is glorious news.’

Last month astronomers announced the discovery of the most Earth-like planet ever found – a rocky world three times the size of our own world, orbiting a star 20 light years away.

The planet appears to have an atmosphere, a gravity like our own and could have flowing water on its surface.

The discovery came three years after astronomers found a similar, slightly less habitable planet around the same small red star called Gliese 581 in the constellation of Libra.

The planet, named Gliese g, is 118,000,000,000,000 miles away – so far away that light from its start takes 20 years to reach the Earth.