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New class of exoplanets discovered

A new type of “exoplanet” (a planet outside of our solar system) was recently discovered by astronomers. The new class of planets is very different from Earth, but the researchers suspect they could still harbor life.

When looking for habitable exoplanets, astronomers usually look for those similar to the only one we know hosts life – ours. Scientists look for planets that are similar to Earth in mass, size, temperature and atmosphere.

Now, researchers at the University of Cambridge report that experts may have been narrowing their search parameters unnecessarily, suggesting that other planets may host life as well. 

A new class of potentially habitable “Hycean” planets – hot, ocean covered exoplanets with nitrogen heavy atmospheres are more common in the universe than Earth-like planets. 

The scientists suggest that it might be easier to find life on one of these more plentiful exoplanets, more quickly answering the question of whether we are alone in the universe.

“Hycean planets open a whole new avenue in our search for life elsewhere,” said lead researcher Dr. Nikku Madhusudhan of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy.

The research predicts that biosignatures originating outside of our solar system could be discovered within two or three years.

Hycean planets are often bigger and hotter than Earth but – because of the oceans they may support – could have life forms similar to those found in extreme marine environments on our planet. A wider range of temperatures could support life on such planets, greatly increasing the planets to search for life.

“Essentially, when we’ve been looking for these various molecular signatures, we have been focusing on planets similar to Earth, which is a reasonable place to start,” said Dr. Madhusudhan. “But we think Hycean planets offer a better chance of finding several trace biosignatures.”

Finding a biosignature outside of our solar system would just confirm what many scientists already suspect – that life exists throughout the universe. Dr. Madhusudhan emphasizes that we need to be open-minded about where we look for this proof. 

“A biosignature detection would transform our understanding of life in the universe. We need to be open about where we expect to find life and what form that life could take, as nature continues to surprise us in often unimaginable ways.”

The study is published in The Astrophysical Journal.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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