“Currently the number of exoplanets stands at close to 600…”

[Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser].  As the BBC reported, astronomers using the HARPS spectrograph on the 3.6-metre telescope at the European Southern Observatory [ESO]’s La Silla Observatory in Chile recently announced the discovery of more than 50 new exoplanets orbiting nearby stars, including sixteen super-Earths.  It’s the subject of ESOcast 35: 50 New Exoplanets.

From the ESO science release

In the eight years since it started surveying stars like the Sun using the radial velocity technique HARPS has been used to discover more than 150 new planets. About two thirds of all the known exoplanets with masses less than that of Neptune [4] were discovered by HARPS. These exceptional results are the fruit of several hundred nights of HARPS observations [5].

Working with HARPS observations of 376 Sun-like stars, astronomers have now also much improved the estimate of how likely it is that a star like the Sun is host to low-mass planets (as opposed to gaseous giants). They find that about 40% of such stars have at least one planet less massive than Saturn. The majority of exoplanets of Neptune mass or less appear to be in systems with multiple planets.

With upgrades to both hardware and software systems in progress, HARPS is being pushed to the next level of stability and sensitivity to search for rocky planets that could support life. Ten nearby stars similar to the Sun were selected for a new survey. These stars had already been observed by HARPS and are known to be suitable for extremely precise radial velocity measurements. After two years of work, the team of astronomers has discovered five new planets with masses less than five times that of Earth.

These planets will be among the best targets for future space telescopes to look for signs of life in the planet’s atmosphere by looking for chemical signatures such as evidence of oxygen,” explains Francesco Pepe (Geneva Observatory, Switzerland), the lead author of one of the recent papers.

One of the recently announced newly discovered planets, HD 85512 b, is estimated to be only 3.6 times the mass of the Earth [6] and is located at the edge of the habitable zone — a narrow zone around a star in which water may be present in liquid form if conditions are right [7].

Here’s a close-up of the star in question,  HD 85512. [Image credit: ESO and Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgment: Davide De Martin]

And they’re not the only ones looking for exo-planets, Nasa’s orbiting Kepler observatory has identifed 1,235 planetary candidates – and 54 candidates within the habitable zone since its launch in March 2009.

From the notes to the ESO science release

Currently the number of exoplanets stands at close to 600. In addition to exoplanets found using radial velocity techniques, more than 1200 exoplanet candidates have been found by NASA’s Kepler mission using an alternative method — searching for the slight drop in the brightness of a star as a planet passes in front of it (transits) and blocks some of the light. The majority of planets discovered by this transit method are very distant from us. But, in contrast, the planets found by HARPS are around stars close to the Sun. This makes them better targets for many kinds of additional follow-up observations.

And a reminder of a quote from one of Those [Royal Society] Guys, Isaac Newton contemporary, and long-term rival, Robert Hooke.  From the preface to his 1665 publication Micrographia

‘Tis not unlikely, but that there may be yet invented several other helps for the eye, as much exceeding those already found, as those do the bare eye, such as we may perhaps be able to discover living Creatures in the Moon, or other Planets, the figures of the compounding Particles of matter, and the particular Schematisms and Textures of Bodies.

And, because I can, here’s the wondrous night sky above the ESO Very Large Telescope array [VLT], also in Chile.  [Video credit: ESO/S. Guisard (www.eso.org/~sguisard) ESO/José Francisco Salgado (josefrancisco.org)]

Finally, here’s another stunning image, taken by ESO Photo Ambassador Yuri Beletsky, of the sky above ESO’s VLT during the total lunar eclipse of 21 December 2010.  [Image credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky]

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  • Greenflag

    Pete ,

    Many thanks for keeping us informed of the possibilities of extra terrestrial discoveries but a thought just struck me -it doesn’t happen too often- but when I read that extract at the end from Robert Hooke’s 1665 Micrographia the alarm bells went off and somehow I keep thinking that perhaps out there in the goldilocks neighbourhoods of far flung galaxies there are ‘others’ who are gazing at us through much more advanced ‘helps for the eye’ and who may be short on the ‘resources side and who might have the technology to transfer ours to theirs -sorta kinda like the way that 2 billion dollars was extracted from UBS in London this morning ;)?

    Hopefully however they may have survived the ‘financial capitalist ‘ stage of species and societal evolution and may instead pass on to us by some inter galactic communicatory mechanism the ‘secret ‘ to species survival beyond the alloted earthly 4 million years average -the last time I checked .

    I will now return to Mr Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s ‘Grand Design as I plough further into the even more fascinating microverse of sub atomic particles and the quantum universe which is making the point that we create history by merely observing it -which point must come as a shock to all of our traditional history makers -but of course comes as almost second nature to those of us who have been observing local and international politics and the triumphs of the ‘market’ these past several years.

    No actual proof of life elsewhere though but perhaps that will come when the technology advances by another few steps or so one must hope.

  • It seems fairly certain now that planets are common so there must be billions of them.
    Greenflag, unfortunately we will never be able to have meaningful communication with other beings, the time to send and receive a message back being so long. It’s a pity.

  • Greenflag

    joecanuck ,

    ‘unfortunately we will never be able to have meaningful communication with other beings, the time to send and receive a message back being so long.

    On the face of it correct Joe. But this ‘micro quantum ‘ universe is throwing up some truly weird /surreal unknowns that what we take as impossibilities from a macroverse perspective may be overcome by microversial short cuts .

    ‘It’s a pity.’

    The assumption is of course that any truly advanced civilisation would not ‘deliberately ‘ or even inadvertently destroy all life on earth or ‘remove ‘ us to make way for their kind but would instead ‘raise us up to their level ‘ . Hmmmm and then I think of what happened when one group of homo sapiens encountered another group of homo sapiens who were separated by 10,000 years of economic and social and political development . There are as you know no Tasmanian aboriginals left .

    But then I suppose you could make the point that humanity has come a long way in it’s morality and high minded altruistic traits since the early 19th century but then Jared Daimond in his ‘Third Chimpanzee’ gives a page long record of homo sapien’s genocidal record against fellow species members since 1900 .

    Maybe it’s not a pity ? But being the curious species we are we will keep trying to find out because that is how we are wired and it will be regardless of the consequences for ourselves or the ‘others ‘ whoever they may or may not be 😉

  • Greenflag,

    As there is no known way of us travelling to meet them or vice versa, we could benefit from communication without being destroyed.

  • Greenflag

    Ever the optimist Joe 😉

    Anything is possible . For me the ‘holy grail ‘ is the discovery of other life forms on other worlds or even within our own solar system and whether or no such life forms are based on the same DNA structure as all life on earth is .

    If we know the answer to that ‘discovery’ that would be a defining moment in man’s perception of himself not only on the earthly scene but on the universal one and might provide the answer to the implicit question behind Shakespeare’s Prospero’s semi statement

    “We are such stuff
    As dreams are made on, and our little life
    Is rounded with a sleep.”

    Per Ardua ad Astra in any event 😉

  • That ESO timelapse will never get old.

  • Pete Baker

    Indeed, Andrew.

  • Into the west

    this one is more imortant,
    given the amount of “blind religous faith ”
    messrs baker and others have put into dark matter
    since sluggers began,
    Dwarf galaxies suggest dark matter theory may be wrong

    I look forward to a blog on that.!

  • Pete Baker


    this one is more imortant,
    given the amount of “blind religous faith ”
    messrs baker and others have put into dark matter
    since sluggers began

    What you talking about, Willis?

    Perhaps you could provide a link to a post demonstrating the “blind religious faith” I’ve “put into dark matter”?

    Tell you what, I’ll start – “Is Everything We Know About The Universe Wrong?”

    As for your linked BBC report…

    Either you haven’t read it properly, or you haven’t comprehended it.

    I’ll be charitable, and assume the former.

  • Zig70

    Dark matter – a mathematical equation for ‘Don’t know’

  • Into the west

    alright petebI’ll let you off 😉
    No I didn’t read the article till the end
    perhaps you will expalin it to us sometime

    the wider point I was making is to do with faith.
    You’re entitled to mock “God, if you like
    but when cosmologists go in for all these
    black, white, red dwarves, its a bit much really
    making it up as you go along, dark matter/energy
    reads like a fairy story really .. see what I mean?

    who is willis? Bob Willis was a bowler ???