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Queen's University astronomers find Earth-like planet a stone's throw away (in astronomical terms, that is)

By Simon Watters

Published 01/08/2015

Artist’s impression of the rocky planet
Artist’s impression of the rocky planet

Queen's University astronomers have helped detect the nearest Earth-like planet to our solar system.

The latest discovery comes only a week after Nasa announced that its Kepler spacecraft had found the "closest twin to Earth" outside of our solar system.

That planet - Kepler 452b - has been described by the US space agency as "Earth's older first cousin and the closest thing that we have to another place that somebody might call home".

Read more

Kepler-452b: Earth's 'older cousin' discovered by Nasa  

It is more than 1,400 light years away, with a similar length of year to Earth, and again raises the possiblity of extra-terrestrials on other planets in deep space.

This new-found rocky world has been named HD219134b and is orbiting a star only 21 light years from our planet in the nearby Cassiopaeia galaxy.

According to Dr Chris Watson from the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen's, the planet is "another of these super-Earths basically in our backyard with an almost Earth-like orbit".

It is so significant because of the millions of stars.

Only a few hundred are within sight of Earth.

Dr Watson added: "We'd like to follow this up by watching the star to get a precise probing of its atmosphere.

"It is a privilege for Queen's to be involved in this ground-breaking work.

"To think that you can look up and see it with your naked eye, and know that there is a system of alien planets spinning around it, is an inspiring thought by itself.

"The fact that one of these crosses the face of the star once an orbit, and we now know is a rocky world, is all the more incredible.

"The amount that we will learn about this planetary system when we train the world's largest telescopes on it in the coming years will be phenomenal.

"I'm sure there will be yet more surprises." 

The team receives significant financial backing from Queen's, the University of St Andrews and the University of Edinburgh.

Measuring the depth of the transit gave the planet's size and allowed the team to calculate its density.

This calculation then showed that it is a rocky world just waiting to be discovered.

This new planet's host star is visible in the night sky without a telescope by anyone with a detailed star map.

It is located in the constellation closest to the North Star, making it ideal for follow-up research into what would be a potential goldmine of data for astronomers.

Factfile

The telescopic instrument detects planets by measuring their mass through how much they wobble in a method called radial velocity.

Astronomers used Nasa's Spitzer Space Telescope to capture the smallest planet crossing in front of the star.

HD 219134b weighs 4.5 times the mass of Earth, making it a so called super-Earth. With such a close orbit, researchers realised that there was a good possibility the planet would transit its star.

Belfast Telegraph

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