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Newly discovered planets show that more Earth-like planets are out there

February 23, 2017

The discovery of seven ‘Earthlike’ planets orbiting a star not too far from our own sun proves that much more is left to explore and understand outside our solar system, says a George Mason University planetary scientist who is part of the New Horizons Pluto mission.

“Seven Earth-sized planets with three in the habitable zone where liquid water can be stable on the surface is a huge surprise,” said Mason astronomer Michael Summers, who continues his work on the Pluto mission. “This is just the kind of planetary system where you might expect Earth-type life to arise and evolve. It's also an important discovery because this type of star is very common in the galaxy. So there may be numerous systems like this elsewhere.”

Summers has a book coming out next month called “Exoplanets,” which he wrote with Mason physicist James Trefil.

Astronomers are discovering new exoplanets almost daily. They can be made of gas, diamonds, water, and other substances. Most likely, there is life, Summers said, even if it’s life that’s vastly different from our Earth-based experience.

Mason has the largest on-campus telescope in the mid-Atlantic states. Mason students have worked in collaboration with the international Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT) project, a survey of exoplanets, to confirm space-based telescopic discoveries of exoplanets.

Summers will be discussing exoplanets, Pluto, and more at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 2, at the free discussion series Galileo’s Science Café on Mason’s Science and Technology Campus. Astronaut Tom Jones will be on hand to talk about his experience. RSVP to attend for free at capmm.gmu.edu/galileo-sciencecafe.

Mike Summers began searching the skies with a second-hand telescope when he was 6 years old. Saturn was the first planet he saw. He’s now part of the New Horizons Pluto mission and is one of Mason’s planetary sciences and astronomy professors. He can be reached at msummers@gmu.edu or 703-993-3971.

For more information, please contact Michele McDonald at mmcdon15@gmu.edu or 703-993-3779.

About George Mason

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 35,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.