Thousands of new worlds waiting to be identified, say scientists

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Edinburgh, March 3 (ANI): A report from the Institute of Physics, US, has predicted that an era of planet discovery is dawning that will see thousands of new worlds identified in the next few years, some of which may harbour life.

More than 400 "exoplanets" orbiting stars beyond the Sun have been catalogued since the first were discovered in 1991.

According to the Scotsman, the report from the Institute of Physics today predicted that in the coming years "the number will rise to thousands".

Most of the planets identified have been the size of gas and ice giants such as Jupiter and Neptune.

But, new advances may soon allow scientists to image Earth-like worlds that could sustain life.

The report, Exoplanets - The Search for Planets Beyond Our Solar System, said, "Future generations of instruments and observatories may enable researchers to image directly small, rocky planets like Earth orbiting distant Sun-like stars, and analyse their atmospheres for tell-tale signs of life."

"Such searches represent the next frontier for scientific exploration - following in the footsteps of Galileo and Darwin," it added.

British astronomers and other scientists are already pioneering many of these developments.

In particular, UK researchers have been heavily involved in a new "adaptive" optics system called the Gemini Plant Imager (GPI), which will allow far more sensitive searches to be made of fainter planets in close orbits.

Finding such small rocky planets is a key step on the way to discovering a second Earth, said the report.

The GPI is due to be installed at Gemini-South, one of a pair of eight-metre telescopes located in Chile and Hawaii, in 2011.

Scientists believe that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is teeming with planets. It is estimated that more than ten billion of its 100 billion stars could host planetary systems.

At least one in ten stars that are similar to the Sun may be orbited by planets.

Life-sustaining planets are likely to occupy a narrow orbital band just far enough away from their parent star to allow the existence of liquid surface water. (ANI)

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