Author`s name Pravda.Ru

Breakthrough in space research: NASA astronomers discover a new set of planets

Astronomers have discovered four new planets in a week's time, an exciting end-of-summer flurry that signals a sharper era in the hunt for new worlds.

While none of these new bodies would be mistaken as Earth's twin, some appear to be noticeably smaller and more solid - more like Earth and &to=' target=_blank>Mars - than the gargantuan, gaseous giants identified before.

Planet-hunting is the hottest field in astronomy, with hundreds of researchers joining a race that just a decade ago was reserved for a few dreamers. This past week has been a dizzying one with three teams in the United States and Europe rushing to announce their discoveries of new exoplanets — those orbiting stars other than our sun.

On Tuesday, &to=' target=_blank>NASA was expected to cap the excitement with details on what the space agency describes as a "new class" of exoplanets found by one of the American teams, led by University of California-Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy.

At least two of the newly discovered bodies — including one NASA is expected to describe — probably are comparable in scale to intermediate-sized planets in our solar system like Neptune and Uranus, which are about 14 times the mass of Earth. That sounds huge, but many of the previous exoplanets have been closer to the size of Jupiter, about 318 times the mass of Earth.

"It's been a great week," said David Charbonneau of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., where scientists announced a competing discovery last week. "They have finally broken through to a new level."

NASA's announcement comes on the heels of the first discovery ever of a multiple &to=' target=_blank>planet system beyond our own solar system by a European team led by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of the University of Geneva. The pair discovered the first exoplanet in 1995, and has found dozens of others in what observers describe as a "good-natured," but serious race with the Americans, reports Associated Press.

According to Rednova the European team describes its new object as a "super-Earth" that is the smallest planet to be found outside of our solar system.

The planet was spotted in June orbiting a southern hemisphere star called mu Arae located 50 light-years away in the constellation Alter. It orbits mu Arae every 9.5 days and has a temperature of more than 1,160 degrees. Its dimensions are more like Neptune or Uranus, and it represents the upper limit of the size of solid planets.