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Wednesday, 10 April, 2002, 10:49 GMT 11:49 UK
Galaxy 'may hold Earth-like planets'
The Milky Way (Nasa/AP)
Our own galaxy could harbour Earth-like planets
The search for life in outer space has received a boost.

British scientists say that, in theory, there could be a billion Earth-like planets in our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

It may be only a matter of time before telescopes spot them.

We can't see Earths yet - but let's suppose that they are there - could they actually exist or would they be flung out into interstellar space?

Barrie Jones, Open University
The prediction has been made by two astronomers at the Open University using a mathematical model. According to computer simulations, some of the newly discovered distant Solar Systems should contain smaller, Earth-like planets.

"We do know that there are a lot of known planetary systems beyond our own Solar System," Dr Barrie Jones told the BBC. "But what we don't know is if there are any Earth-like planets up there."

Gaseous giants

Astronomers have identified about 70 planets in orbit around distant stars.

These so-called exoplanets are not the sort that could support life. They are enormous - gas giants like our own Jupiter.

Dr Jones believes that smaller, Earth-like planets may exist in some of these far-flung planetary systems.

"What I've been doing is saying, 'Well we can't see Earths yet, but let's suppose that they are there - could they actually exist or would they be flung out into interstellar space by the presence of these big giants?'" he said.

He said a computer model to see whether Earth-like planets could survive among the giants had produced "some rather encouraging results".

Ursae Majoris

It suggests that more than one billion habitable planets could exist in our own galaxy.

Dr Jones said it would be 10-15 years before telescopes were powerful enough to spot any smaller planets that might be present. But astronomers will at least know where to look.

The Solar System most like ours discovered so far is centred around a distant star called 47 Ursae Majoris.

Two planets orbit the star - one twice the size of Jupiter and the other slightly smaller.

The findings will be presented at the National Astronomy Meeting in Bristol on Wednesday 10 April.

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