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Scientists have only recently found multiple planets orbiting around stars. The first discovered was Upsilon Andromedae. This other Solar System was first documented in 1999. Once one new Solar System was discovered, it seems there were plenty just around the corner. Astronomers now theorize that there are as many as 50 billion planets in our galaxy.
Upsilon Andromedae has three Jupiter type planets in orbit. Many scientists think that every Solar System has to include a Jupiter type and size planet. That was the prevalent theory until 2006 when scientists found three Neptune mass planets around star HD 69830 without a Jupiter type planet included.
Probably the most famous other Solar System is the Gliese 581 system. There are 6 planets within the system and two of them are thought to have liquid water on their surface. This is a positive sign that life could be supported by the planet.
Beta Pictoris has piqued scientists interest. Using NASA’s Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, or FUSE, observers have discovered vast amounts of carbon gas in a dusty disk surrounding the young star. The star and its emerging solar system are less than 20 million years old. The abundance of carbon gas in the remaining debris disk indicates that the planets could be or two types: carbon-rich worlds of graphite and methane or resemble our own solar system in its early days. The new measurements make Beta Pictoris the first disk of its kind whose gas has been comprehensively studied and puts to rest a long-standing scientific mystery about how the gas has lingered in this debris disk, while raising new questions about the development of solar systems.
Some scientists also believe that they can examine the reflected light from distant planets and determine the color of the planet life, if any, on those planets. Here on Earth, plants reflect green light. On other worlds the plants may reflect red, green, or yellow light. Nancy Kiang, a biometeorologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, worked with a team of scientists from the Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) at the California Institute of Technology, part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) to study light absorbed and reflected by organisms on Earth in hopes of translating their discoveries to other planets.
As science pushes to discover other Solar Systems, the chance of finding one that is able to sustain life may increase. With 200 billion stars in our galaxy, it is conceivable that scientists will eventually bump into other intelligent life.
We have recorded a whole series of podcasts about the Solar System at Astronomy Cast. Check them out here.