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Astronomers Spy New Planet in Distant Solar System

Scientists announced Tuesday that they had discovered a new planet orbiting the star 55 Cancri, 41 light years from Earth, making it the most crowded solar system identified outside of our own. Astronomer Geoff Marcy talks about the new planet find.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Finally tonight, something new in the distance. Jeffrey Brown has our Science Unit update.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The distance is actually 41 light years from Earth, where scientists think a solar system exists that may well be similar to our own. At the center of the system is a star called 55 Cancri, which can be seen from Earth in the night sky.

    Now scientists have announced the discovery of a fifth planet orbiting that star. The planet is about 45 times the mass of Earth.

    Here to tell us about it is Geoff Marcy, a professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley. He was one of the scientists on the team that discovered the new planet.

    So, Geoff Marcy, what's the significance of finding a fifth planet? What does it tell us about the solar system?

    GEOFF MARCY, University of California, Berkeley: Well, what's lovely, of course, is that our own sun harbors eight planets — major ones, anyway — and now we've finally found a star, which, by the way, is very similar to our sun — the same mass, almost the same age, nearly the same chemical composition as our sun — and this star harbors five planets.

    So we're beginning to see full families of planets orbiting other stars, giving us a sense that our own solar system is not unusual, that, in fact, there are many such examples of planetary systems elsewhere in our Milky Way Galaxy.

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