Brussels, 01 Sep 2004
US astronomers have found two new planets, the size of Neptune, orbiting stars beyond our solar system. The announcement comes just days after a team of European scientists declared that they had detected a third Neptune-sized extrasolar planet.
The planets are the smallest worlds yet seen circling other stars, and scientists are pronouncing the discovery a breakthrough in the search for other Earths and for life in space.
'It sounds a bit strange, but we're not thinking in terms of Jupiter masses or Saturn masses anymore, but Earth masses,' said Geoff Marcy from the University of California - a member of one of two teams reporting the discoveries. Neptune is 17 times more massive than Earth, while Saturn and Jupiter are 95 and 318 times larger, respectively. One of the new planets is perhaps only 14 times the mass of Earth.
The new planets are also unlike their larger counterparts. 'All exoplanets found so far are almost certainly gas giants, but these new ones are a puzzle - they could be gaseous like Jupiter, but they also could have a rock-ice core and a thick envelope of hydrogen and helium gas, like Neptune, or they could be a combination of rock and ice, like Mercury,' said Professor Marcy.
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