New worlds for a future Columbus to explore

Last week came the big news about the latest discovery in astronomya new planet was discovered orbiting a sun-like star, called 55 Cancri, located 41 light years from Earth. The new planet, along with its recently discovered four companions, is located in the constellation Cancer the Crab. The new planet, while not the least Earthlike in either size or mass, does orbit within its homestars so-called habitable zonethat is the area within a solar system where liquid water can exist at least with the right surface and atmospheric conditions. While its speculative at this point, its possible that an Earthlike moon (or moons) may orbit the big planet. According to an Associated Press news report of the discovery on Nov. 6, (The new-found planet) is more like Saturn than Earth and therefore not likely to support life. (However) scientists have not ruled out the possibility of finding an Earth-like planet within the system as technology improves. One of the planets co-discoverers, California astronomer Debra Fischer, told an A.P. reporter in San Francisco, "(That) it's a system that appears to be packed with planets." "When you look up into the night sky and see the twinkling lights of stars, you can imagine with certainty that they have their own complement of planets," added astronomer and co-discoverer Geoff Marcy of the University of California. He was also interviewed by the A.P. about his role in the planetary discovery. Counting outward from 55 Cancri, the new-found planet is the fourth rock from its sun. Fischer and his team members estimated that the planet is approximately 45 times the mass of Earththats one heavy planet. Its likely to be composed of a thick gaseous atmosphere, as well as a mantle and core of mixed rock and ices. The big planet may also host a Saturn-like ring system. For amateur astronomers who like mathematical details, a technical paper released last week by Marcy et al. reports that The five new planets occupy known realms of planetary parameter space, including a wide range of orbital eccentricities, e=00.78, and semima jor axes, 0.13.8 A.U.... (Thus, they) provide further statistical information about the true distributions of various properties of planetary systems. Marcy and Fischer noted that the latest 55 Cancri planet to be detected has an orbit (or year) of 260 days, a bit less than Earths familiar 365 days. The astronomers detected the newest of new worlds after spending nearly two decades using ground-based telescopes to measure the Doppler effect on 55 Cancri, called stellar wobble. 55 Cancris other big planets were discovered as recently as 2004. The distant solar systems innermost planet is more like Neptune than Saturn while the outermost planet probably looks more like Jupiter. If you include last weeks discovery, astronomers have now added a whopping 250 exoplanets to the record books. An exoplanet is a fancy term for any planet orbiting beyond our Suns planetary system. So far, 55 Cancri holds the universal record of having the most planets in a solar system beyond the Sun. Whats in the Sky: On Saturday, Nov. 17, the Leonid meteor shower will put on its best performance. Dont expect a supershow, but it's still worth waking before dawn to view these annual falling stars. Get away from annoying nightlights in your neighborhood to best see the Leonid meteors.

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