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by John Charlton

Artists' conception of the 6 Earth-mass exoplanet Gliese 667 C, one of the 32 new exoplanets recently discovered by the HARPS team.

(Oct. 28, 2009) — It’s something we see all day long and all day night; amazing the beauty of it daily; but of which we rarely take a deeper interest at the beauty and wonders which abound there.

As the Psalmist of old declared, “The heavens declare the glory of God…”, so man in recent years, even in search of the mysteries hidden away in the natural world, has discovered more about the “geography” of outer space than had been discovered in the past century.

Among the most fascinating of discoveries are exoplanets.  An “exo-Planet” is a planet which belongs to a distant solar system.  Our Solar system is comprised of the Sun, the nine planets, asteroids, comets, meteors.

Though, while long speculated as possible, in recent years it has been discovered that other stars in the Heavens also have planets circling them.  These planets are known as “exoplanets” from the Greek “exo-” for “outsider”, and “planetei” for “wanderes”.

Recently the number of such other-worldly planets which have been discovered surpassed 400.

Joshua Rodriguez of the Planet Quest Mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA in California reports that,

European astronomers this week announced the discovery of 32 new worlds – including a handful of so-called “super Earths” – bringing the total exoplanet tally to over 400.

The latest batch of exoplanets was discovered by an international team of astronomers using the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), the spectrograph for ESO’s 3.6-metre telescope in La Silla, Chile. With more than 75 exoplanet discoveries to its credit, the instrument has become a powerful tool for planet hunters.

Perhaps even more exciting to scientists than the big numbers are the increasingly small planets being found. Several of the worlds recently discovered with HARPS are just a few times larger than Earth, marking progress toward the ultimate goal of detecting small, terrestrial planets. However, none of the planets announced last week are considered habitable.

Finding small, rocky planets that might resemble Earth is a key goal for NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which is currently scanning thousands of distant stars for signs of transiting exoplanets.

The importance of the discovery of exoplanets is twofold: the advance in man’s understanding of his cosmic neighborhood; and the information this provides to verify and develop theories regarding the formation of solar systems, the natural forces involved, so as to better understand the commonalities and uniqueness of our own Solar System.

Though no planets have yet been discovered, which contain life, or which would be habitable; it must be remembered that the distance to such planets is so great (in some cases taking more than 1,000 years of travelling at the speed of light — which is scientifically impossible according to the known laws of physics) that man could never conceivably visit them.

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