Scientists say they've detected a planet that could have life just 42 light-years from earth—close enough so that astronomers might someday be able to directly observe it through a telescope.
The "super Earth" is about seven times the size of Earth and is approximately 55.8 million miles from its star, which is within the so-called "habitable zone" where liquid water could exist. Earth is about 93 million miles from the Sun.
According to University of Hertfordshire professor Hugh Jones, the planet's 197-day year means its climate might be sufficient for life.
"The longer orbit of the new planet means that its climate and atmosphere may be just right to support life," Jones, who published his findings in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, said in a statement. "This planet—or indeed any moons that it has—lie on an orbit comparable to Earth, increasing the probability of it being habitable."
The planet has been named HD 40307g and it joins at least five other planets in the solar system surrounding its star, HD 40307. Three of the other planets found in that solar system are too close to the star to have liquid water.
Other so-called Super-Earths that lie within a star's habitable zone—often called "Goldilocks planets"—have been discovered before, and researchers say that there could me as many as 500 million in the Milky Way alone.
Current telescopes aren't strong enough to directly observe the planet, which was discovered with something called a High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher, which detects the gravitational pull of a planet on its parent star. But David Pinfield, another researcher at the university, said the star is a "natural target for the next generation of large telescopes, both on the ground and in space."
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Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.