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Astronomers Discover A Second Multi-Planet System in Milky Way

By Kathy Sawyer
THE WASHINGTON POST -- Elated astronomers Thursday announced the discovery of the first multi-planet system ever found around a normal star other than our own, moving civilization a step closer to its ancient quest for kindred havens where life might have arisen.

The signal of three orbiting worlds emerged from 11 years of telescope observations of the star Upsilon Andromedae, which is bright enough to see with the naked eye and is located a relatively close 44 light years (about 264 trillion miles) from Earth in the direction of the constellation Andromeda. The findings were announced Thursday in San Francisco by two independent teams from four institutions who confirmed each other’s conclusions using different equipment.

The discovery “implies that planets can form more easily than we ever imagined, and that our Milky Way is teeming with planetary systems,” said astronomer Debra Fischer of San Francisco State University, a member of one discovery team.

“This is the one we’ve all been waiting for,” said Stephen Maran, a spokesman for the American Astronomical Society. “Astronomers’ hearts are in their throats.”

The discovery provides the “first clear evidence” that science fiction writers are right to depict their characters hopping from planet to planet throughout the galaxy, “like a bumble bee going from daisy to daisy,” said Geoffrey Marcy, who led Fischer’s team.

“We are witnessing, I think, the emergence of a new era of human exploration,” Marcy said. The newfound solar system, following a trend set by the single stars detected around sunlike stars in recent years, exhibits orbital oddities and other unexpected properties that raise “profound questions” about where we fit in, he said, and whether our solar system may be “the result of some cosmic quirk of nature.” The new solar system does not appear hospitable to life.