Washington, May 29 : A landmark meeting of astronomers has announced the discovery of a huge haul of exoplanets in our galaxy, which hold great significance in the hunt for "super-Earths" - rocky alien worlds a few times more massive than our own.
"This really changes things," said Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who attended the International Astronomical Union meeting in Boston. "It marks the beginning of the detailed exploration of super-Earths," she added.
The new discovery of a large number of small planets suggests that they are abundant in our galaxy, and outnumber Jupiter-sized giants by 3 to 1. This contrasts with the nearly 300 alien planets previously discovered, of which the vast majority are Jupiter-like gas giants.
Only a dozen or so are low-mass planets: either Neptune-like ice-worlds or rocky planets like Earth.
Now researchers on the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) survey based at the European Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile, have announced the discovery of 45 more planets in the Milky Way - all of them less than one-tenth of Jupiter's mass.
They spotted them by recording how each planet's gravitational tug makes its parent star wobble.
According to Cristophe Lovis of the University of Geneva, Switzerland, a member of the HARPS team, these observations suggest that while many of the new worlds are likely to be "hot Neptunes" - planets composed mainly of water with layer of hydrogen and helium on top, it is probable that some will turn out to be more like rocky super-Earths.
"These are preliminary numbers," said Lovis, referring to the 45 planets. "But there's no doubt that the majority of them will turn out to be real," he added.
The announcement of this potential haul of super-Earths opens up the exciting prospect that astronomers will be able to glean some detailed information about what these planets are like.
For years, astronomers have been waiting for a super-Earth to be found with an orbit that "transits" its parent star. In other words, it passes directly in front of the star as viewed from Earth.
This would allow them to deduce many of its characteristics, from its internal structure to the make-up of its atmosphere.
The likelihood of observing such transits is increased when exoplanets have a short orbit around their star.
The HARPS planets fit the bill: all orbit in less than 50 days, and some in as little as 10 days. This means that during a relatively short period of observation, the HARPS planets will be much more likely than planets with longer orbits to pass in front of their star.