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April 17, 2014

Astronomers spot most Earth-like planet yet

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Astronomers have discovered what they say is the most Earth-like planet yet detected — a distant, rocky world that's similar in size to our planet and exists in the Goldilocks zone where it's not too hot and not too cold for life.

The find, announced Thursday, excited planet hunters who have been scouring the Milky Way galaxy for years for potentially habitable spots outside our solar system.

"This is the best case for a habitable planet yet found. The results are absolutely rock solid," University of California, Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy, who had no role in the discovery, said in an email.

The planet was detected by NASA's orbiting Kepler telescope, which examines the heavens for subtle changes in brightness that indicate an orbiting planet is crossing in front of a star. From those changes, scientists can calculate a planet's size and make certain inferences about its makeup.

The newfound object, dubbed Kepler-186f, circles a red dwarf star 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. A light-year is almost 6 trillion miles.

The planet is about 10 percent larger than Earth and may very well have liquid water — a key ingredient for life — on its surface, scientists said. That is because it resides at the outer edge of the habitable temperature zone around its star — the sweet spot where lakes, rivers or oceans may exist without freezing solid or boiling away.

The planet probably basks in an orange-red glow from its star and is most likely cooler than Earth, with an average temperature slightly above freezing, "similar to dawn or dusk on a spring day," Marcy said.

The discovery was detailed in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

Lead researcher Elisa Quintana at NASA's Ames Research Center said she considers the planet to be more of an "Earth cousin" than a twin because it circles a star that is smaller and dimmer than our sun. While Earth revolves around the sun in 365 days, this planet completes an orbit of its star every 130 days.

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