A team of international astronomers said they had discovered a new planet, possibly bigger than Jupiter, in a nearby solar system.
The yet-to-be-named planet orbits the star Epsilon Eridani, the closest star to Earth that has a circling planet and is bright enough to be seen with the naked eye.
“Detecting a planet orbiting Epsilon Eridani — a star very similar to our own Sun — is like finding a planet in our own backyard,” team leader Dr William Cochran said in a statement.
“Not only is this planet nearby, it lies 478 million kilometers [297 million miles] from its central star — roughly the distance from the sun to the asteroid belt in our own solar system,” the astronomer at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory in Austin added.
The distance between the planet and its star opens up the possibility that there could be Earth-like planets closer to Epsilon Eridani — in a zone that Cochran said might be habitable.
The team will announce the discovery at the International Astronomical Union (IAU) General Assembly on Monday. Two thousand astronomers from 87 countries will participate in the 11-day conference.
They estimate that the new planet, one of several expected to be announced during the assembly, is bigger than Jupiter, the largest planet in our Solar System.
It is made up mostly of gas, and its eccentric orbit lasts just under seven years, about 60 percent as long as Jupiter’s.
Astronomers consider stable orbits, like those of the Earth and other nearby planets, an important factor in the development of life.
“The exciting thing about this discovery is that having a large planet orbiting fairly far out from Epsilon Eridani means there could be room for Earth-like planets in a reasonably stable orbit closer to the star,” Cochran explained.
The astronomers found the planet using data sets from four different telescopes with three different measuring techniques.
Bright Host Star
Because Epsilon Eridani is so bright and one of the 10 nearest star systems, it is easily detectable.
“You can go outside at night, even in Austin, and point at it and say that star there has a planet around it,” Cochran added.
The new planet is the 41st to be discovered outside our solar system recently. Three others were found by the University of Texas University team in Austin.
The general assembly of the Paris-based IAU will feature 500 talks and presentations. The conference is held every three years.