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SUPER EARTH possibly home to life FOUND in our 'solar backyard'

GJ 832c is just 16 light years away

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A team led by Australian astronomers has discovered a huge planet relatively close to Earth that resides in the so-called Goldilocks zone, where conditions are right for liquid water to exist on the surface.

GJ 832 c has a mass about five times that of Earth and orbits a red dwarf star every 16 days. The newly discovered planet is about five times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun, but the dim red dwarf has solar output 20 times lower than in this solar system, so the amount of energy the planet receives is about the same.

"It's very close, right in our solar backyard as it were," Professor Chris Tinney from the University of New South Wales' Exoplanetary Science research group told The Register. "But it is in the habitable zone."

That doesn't mean that we could survive on it ourselves, he pointed out. It's possible that the new planet is much more like Venus, which is also on the edge of the habitable zone but is uninhabitable due to the dense composition of its atmosphere, which traps heat and causes surface temperatures of over 400°C.

Even if the planet is uninhabitable, all may not be lost for budding emigrants. In a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal, the team speculates that such a large planet might have a habitable moon in its orbit. Sadly there isn't a telescope powerful enough to find out, at the moment.

The new planet's relatively close proximity to Earth isn't the only reason it's exciting astronomers. Because the system has an outer gas giant and an inner potentially rocky planet, it could be a good candidate for a solar system similar to our own.

“With an outer giant planet and an interior potentially rocky planet, this planetary system can be thought of as a miniature version of our Solar System,” said Tinney.

The Australian team has been monitoring the star for 15 years using the Anglo-Australian Telescope and in 2009 discovered a gas giant dubbed Gliese GJb orbiting much further out. But by matching its data with observations from telescopes in Chile, the team identified a telltale Doppler wobble that revealed the new planet's existence. ®

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