Three potentially habitable 'Super Earth' worlds have been found orbiting a triple-star system just 22 light years from Earth.
Gliese 667C is relatively near to our own sun, in the constellation of Scorpius, and has at least six planets in orbit around it.
Three of those worlds are in the so-called habitable zone, where the temperature might make it possible for liquid water - and thus, potentially, life - to form.
Above: artist's impression of a sunset on Gliese 667C F
These 'Super Earths' are thought to be planets more massive than our own world, but less massive that Uranus or Neptune.
These strange worlds are part of a system where two other stars would also light up the sky, giving each of the three worlds a unique 'triple' sunset.
Those two other stars, while more distant, would give off as much light as the full Moon does to Earth.
Using a 3.6-metre European Southern Observatory telescope in Chile, the team of scientists led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé of the University of Göttingen, Germany and Mikko Tuomi of the University of Hertfordshire, UK, have been able to take a closer look at the system.
By using this data combined with other observations, they now think the system is the best example yet found of an alien star that might have fostered life.
The data is still relatively incomplete, however, since the planets cannot be directly seen by telescopes. It is possible that conditions on these worlds might make the formation of liquid water impossible, depending on the condition of their atmospheres or other variables.
But even if life is not present on these planets, the finding still points to the presence of many more habitable worlds in our galaxy than previously thought.
Nasa, ESA and many other agencies and academics are searching for potentially habitable exo-planets. But while so far about 100 of the 898 alien worlds found so far are thought to be in the 'habitable zone', most are too big to have a surface with liquid water.
Above: the sky around the Gliese 667 system
But the three habitable planets around Gliese 667C are the first small-enough worlds to be found orbiting this close to a low-powered star.
The ESO explained:
Compact systems around Sun-like stars have been found to be abundant in the Milky Way. Around such stars, planets orbiting close to the parent star are very hot and are unlikely to be habitable. But this is not true for cooler and dimmer stars such as Gliese 667C.
In this case the habitable zone lies entirely within an orbit the size of Mercury's, much closer in than for our Sun. The Gliese 667C system is the first example of a system where such a low-mass star is seen to host several potentially rocky planets in the habitable zone.
"The number of potentially habitable planets in our galaxy is much greater if we can expect to find several of them around each low-mass star -- instead of looking at ten stars to look for a single potentially habitable planet, we now know we can look at just one star and find several of them," added co-author Rory Barnes from the University of Washington.
NASA's Kepler Mission Discovers Planet
In this handout illustration made available on December 5, 2011 by NASA, the Kepler-22b, a planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star is digitally illustrated. For the first time NASA's Kepler mission has confirmed a planet to orbit in a star's habitable zone; the region around a star, where liquid water, a requirement for life on Earth, could persist. The planet is 2.4 times the size of Earth, making it the smallest yet found to orbit in the middle of the habit. Clouds could exist in this earth's atmosphere, as the artist's interpretive illustration depicts. (Photo Illustration by Ames/JPL-Caltech/NASA via Getty Images)
NASA's Kepler Mission Discovers Planet
In this handout illustration made available on December 5, 2011 by NASA, a diagram compares our own solar system to Kepler-22, a star system containing the first 'habitable zone' planet discovered by NASA's Kepler mission. The habitable zone is the sweet spot around a star where temperatures are right for water to exist in its liquid form. Liquid water is essential for life on Earth. The diagram displays an artist's rendering of the planet comfortably orbiting within the habitable zone, similar to where Earth circles the sun. Kepler-22b has a yearly orbit of 289 days. The planet is the smallest known to orbit in the middle of the habitable zone of a sun-like star and is about 2.4 times the size of Earth. (Photo Illustration by Ames/JPL-Caltech/NASA via Getty Images)
Extrasolar Planet HD 209458 b, Osiris
Artist's conception released by NASA of extrasolar planet HD 209458 b, also known as Osiris, orbiting its star in the constellation Pegasus, some 150 light years from Earth's solar system. Scientists have used an infrared spectrum -- the first ever obtained for an extrasolar planet -- to analyze Osiris' atmosphere, which is said to contain dust but no water. The planet's surface temperature is more than 700 Celsius (1330 Fahrenheit).'
Planet & Its Parent Star
Picture released 04 October 2006 by the European Space Agency shows an artist's impression of a Jupiter-sized planet passing in front of its parent star. Such events are called transits. When the planet transits the star, the star's apparent brightness drops by a few percent for a short period. Through this technique, astronomers can use the Hubble Space Telescope to search for planets across the galaxy by measuring periodic changes in a star's luminosity. The first class of exoplanets found by this technique are the so-called 'hot Jupiters,' which are so close to their stars they complete an orbit within days, or even hours. A seam of stars at the centre of the Milky Way has shown astronomers that an entirely new class of planets closely orbiting distant suns is waiting to be explored, according to a paper published 04 October 2006. An international team of astronomers, using a camera aboard NASA's Hubble telescope, delved into a zone of the Milky Way known as the 'galactic bulge', thus called because it is rich in stars and in the gas and dust which go to make up stars and planets. The finding opens up a new area of investigation for space scientists probing extrasolar planets - planets that orbit stars other than our own. AFP PHOTO NASA/ESA/K. SAHU (STScI) AND THE SWEEPS SCIENCE TEAM
Picture released 04 October 2006 by the European Space Agency shows an artist's impression of a unique type of exoplanet discovered with the Hubble Space Telescope. This image presents a purely speculative view of what such a 'hot Jupiter' (word dedicated to planets so close to their stars with such short orbital periods) might look like. A seam of stars at the centre of the Milky Way has shown astronomers that an entirely new class of planets closely orbiting distant suns is waiting to be explored, according to a paper published 04 October 2006. An international team of astronomers, using a camera aboard NASA's Hubble telescope, delved into a zone of the Milky Way known as the 'galactic bulge', thus called because it is rich in stars and in the gas and dust which go to make up stars and planets. The finding opens up a new area of investigation for space scientists probing extrasolar planets - planets that orbit stars other than our own. AFP PHOTO NASA/ESA/K. SAHU (STScI) AND THE SWEEPS SCIENCE TEAM
The Goldilocks Planet: Glises 581 G
Scientist have found a new potentially habitable planet.
Imagining Extrasolar Planets
From the Spitzer Science Center. While astronomers have identified over 500 planets around other stars, they're all too small and distant to fill even a single pixel in our most powerful telescopes. That's why science must rely on art to help us imagine these strange new worlds. From Spitzer Space Telescope. Even without pictures of these exoplanets, astronomers have learned many things that can be illustrated in artwork. For instance, measurements of the temperatures of many "Hot Jupiters," massive worlds orbiting very close to their stars, hint that their atmospheres may be as dark as soot, glowing only from their own heat. While "Hot Jupiters" would be relatively dark in visible light, compared to their stars, their brightness is proportionally much greater in the infrared. Illustrating this dramatic contrast change helps explain why the infrared eye of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope plays a key role in studying exoplanets. As our understanding evolves, so must the artwork. Astronomers found a blazing hot spot on the exoplanet Upsilon Andromedae b that at first, appeared to face towards its star. More data has revealed that the hottest area is actually strangely rotated almost 90 degrees away, near the day/night terminator. WASP 12b is as hot as the filament in a light bulb, and would be blazing bright to our eyes. Most interestingly, if it proves to have a strongly elliptical orbit, as first thought, calculations show it would be shedding some of its outer atmosphere <b>...</b>