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HAD IT with Planet Earth? There are 12 alien worlds left to try out

Boffins have now spotted a more than 1,000 exoplanets

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Space boffins have now identified more than 1,000 planets orbiting distant stars – with 12 of them potentially suitable for human life.

There are now known to be 1,010 exoplanets, which is the name given to planets circling other suns. Around 1 per cent of these are so-called "Goldilocks planets", which are situated in the habitable zone where it's not too hot for liquid water to boil off as steam, but not too cold for it to stay permanently frozen.

Planets can be spotted when they move in front of stars, blotting out their light, or through the gravitational pull they exert on other planets.

Abel Mendez, from the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico, said that if his fellow researchers had more cash, they would have found even more planets by now.

"We have more techniques and proven technology to detect more exoplanets, but the limit has been telescopes, especially space telescopes.

"If we had more funding there would be more telescopes and that count would be much larger by now."

The planets are all noted on the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia, which had recorded 999 planets by yesterday. Then, the British SuperWASP (wide angle search for planets) found another 11, sending the total rocketing over the thousand mark.

Mendez said he loves looking for planets because it sheds a bit of light on our own Earth.

"We want to know how unique our planet is, that's a big question and we are now closer than ever," he added.

"I don't just want to know where the exoplanets are, I want to understand the stars, because they are the hosts for the planets. I want to understand the whole galaxy and the distribution of the stars because everything is connected."

NASA is now taking the search for exoplanets extremely seriously and is planning to send a craft called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite into orbit in 2017.

The space-syndicate's satellite will use an array of telescopes to perform an "all-sky survey to discover transiting exoplanets ranging from Earth-sized to gas giants in orbit around the nearest and brightest stars in the sky".

However, NASA only records planets which have been specifically mentioned in astronomical journals, meaning that it officially recognises 919 confirmed worlds.

Eventually, the space agency hopes to use its telescope to find a nice, watery planet that humans can dream of settling on, as long as they don't mind a long schlep to get there.

The first Earth-like planet was found orbiting the star Gliese 581, which is a mere 20 light years away and boasts two more potentially habitable planets.

Seeing as it's about 120 trillion miles away and the space shuttle travels at roughly 17,000 miles (27,000km) an hour, a journey should take about 800,000 years, give or take a few millenia. Which, strangely enough, is about how long humans have been living in Britain.

Some would say quite a lot has changed in that time. Others, of course, would disagree. ®

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