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Exoplanets | The planet hunters | Economist.com

Exoplanets | The planet hunters | Economist.com
EARLY science is a lot like stamp collecting. In any new field of endeavour, the first priority is to gather lots of specimens. In planetary science the result is a menagerie of exotic new worlds, some 236 of which were this week confirmed as exoplanets—that is, planets outside the solar system. Over the past few days members of the American Astronomical Society meeting in Honolulu have also been tussling over whether the first Earth-like planet, announced at the end of April, has actually been found.

The rate of progress is extraordinary. The first exoplanet orbiting a normal star was discovered a mere 12 years ago. Before that, the answer to the rhetorical question “are we alone?”, might quite possibly have been “yes”. Exoplanets were the stuff of science fiction. Now the hunt is well and truly on for places that are capable of sustaining life, and in some ways the speculations of the sci-fi writers have been far outstripped by reality.

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