I have followed with much interest over the years the search for planets outside of our solar system. Dubbed exoplanets, or extrasolar planets, their numbers have skyrocketed in the past 5 to 10 years. I remember hearing about debates as a child about the existence of these entities. After the initial report of an exosolar planet in a highly respected journal, Nature, on October 6, 1995, the pace of discovery has quickened as various techniques for discovery have been tested and implemented and teams of planet-hunters have sprung up across our own world. The total number is now up to 416. One of the most unexpected results? Our solar system is, so far, the odd ball.
An excellent representation of most of them (373) can be seen in this National Geographic graphic. It’s charts like this that captured my imagination as a kid. I love seeing the most current concepts of a still-developing science. If you go look at it, don’t miss the sliding bar about 2/3 of the way down to see the full range of results.
One goal of these searches is obviously a planet like Earth, which is capable of hosting life, or even civilizations on it. The closest thing yet has been found.
20 light years away, the planet currently known as Gliese 581c has been announced. I wish the American press would cover these discoveries like the British do. This article is well worth clicking to, just to see the graphics they have available. They include a conceptual image of the solar system in question, belonging to Gliese 581, a comparison of the new planet compared to Earth, and a conceptual image of the sky as seen from Gliese 581c.
Spectacular, all around.