Could there be 'billions' of habitable planets in our galaxy?

Contributed by
Dec 16, 2012

We may not have to look too terribly far to find a habitable alien planet out there. It turns out, there could be a few billion just in our own neighborhood. According to a new study, there are likely a lot more rocky - but habitable - planets out there orbiting red stars within our Milky Way galaxy.

The only problem? They can be tough to spot. We've managed to find a few, but scientists are now saying there are probably quite a lot more out there that we're missing. Even better, many of them are solid candidates to house extraterrestrial life.

Astronomers at the La Silla Observatory in Chile have found nine Earth-like planets in the past six years, two of which are in the "Goldilocks" zone and could actually support liquid water on the surface. By doing the math to figure out the odds, based on the amount of red dwarf stars out there, they believe there could be "billions" of potentially habitable planets just within our galaxy.

"Our new observations with HARPS [spectograph] mean that about 40 percent of all red dwarf stars have a super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist on the surface of the planet," French research leader Xavier Bonfils told MSNBC. "Because red dwarfs are so common - there are about 160 billion of them in the Milky Way - this leads us to the astonishing result that there are tens of billions of these planets in our galaxy alone."

Now that we know there could be some habitable planets out there, scientists say the next step is to build some research plans to learn more about these mysterious super-Earths floating around.

"We need to identify more of them using both HARPS and future instruments," researcher Xavier Delfosse noted. "Some of these planets are expected to pass in front of their parent star as they orbit - this will open up the exciting possibility of studying the planet's atmosphere and searching for signs of life."

What do you think? Is there a nice, Earth-like planet out there just waiting to be colonized - and, more importantly - will there be aliens waiting for us when we get there?