Giant planet offers hope of alien life

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The Independent Online
ASTRONOMERS HAVE discovered the nearest planet to our own solar system, just 15 light years from Earth - and it might harbour water, the essential compound for life. It also offers encouragement to the idea that planets are relatively common.

Two teams of scientists, from France and the United States, separately discovered the huge planet. It is 60 per cent more massive than Jupiter and was detected because of the "wobble" it causes during its orbit around its star.

Early calculations suggest that the surface temperature of the planet is -75C, but the scientists reckon that water could exist as droplets below the warmer layers of the surface of the planet, which would, like Jupiter, be mostly gaseous.

However, to help breed life, water would have to form puddles - and that is not feasible on a gas giant. That does not rule out the chance that the planet itself has rocky moons on which water ice could have collected. Those could then support life.

Jupiter's own moon Europa is thought to be the most likely candidate for life beyond Earth, because it has a warm ocean below a surface ice layer.