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The race to find Earth-like planets in their habitable zones, and the prospects for alpha Centauri

21 Oct 2009, 23:00 UTC
The race to find Earth-like planets in their habitable zones, and the prospects for alpha Centauri
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No-one should have any doubt about what is one of the most exciting and challenging projects in modern astronomy of the early 21st century. It is the race to find Earth-mass planets lying in their habitable zones. It is easy to understand why this topic has captured the imagination of astronomers, the media and the general public. First, because there exists a widely held belief amongst astronomers that nothing in the universe is unique. Wherever we look, the same types of objects are generally found in many places, although some objects are certainly rare.
Secondly, it is because we recognize that the Earth provides a special environment that has favoured the development of life. That special environment includes having a rocky surface, a protective atmosphere, a temperature suitable for liquid water and hence favourable for life forms. In addition, our planet is at the right distance of one astronomical unit from a solar type star to receive the required amount of radiation in the form of heat and light. Certainly quite a few conditions have to be satisfied, but solar-type stars are ubiquitous in our Galaxy and it is now clear that Jupiter-mass planets are quite common too. Probably ...

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