Habitable Earth-like planets could be in our own back yard – in astronomical terms, that is.
Researchers have identified three planets, which are between 300 and 600 light years away, as ‘objects of interest’ – meaning they could be potentially habitable.
But the closest of these potentially habitable planets is just 13 light years away.
They orbit red dwarf stars, and the Harvard university team say their findings show up that six per cent of these stars could have similar planets.
The closest red dwarf stars – and their planets, which we could potentialy inhabit – are in our astronomical backyard of just 13 light years’ distance.
And since red dwarf stars live much longer than Sun-like stars, any life on such a planet could be much older and more evolved than on Earth.
Harvard astronomer and lead author Courtney Dressing, who presented the findings at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said: ‘We thought we would have to search vast distances to find an Earth-like planet.
‘Now we realise another Earth is probably in our own backyard, waiting to be spotted.’
She added: ‘You don’t need an Earth clone to have life.’
She identified the planets by studying transits – when a planet passes in front of a star.
The signal of a transiting planet is larger since the star itself is smaller, so an Earth-sized world blocks more of the star’s disc.
Researchers identified around 158,000 of the possible 75 billion red dwarf stars that make up the galaxy, discovering many were smaller and cooler than first thought.
Of that number around 95 planetary candidates orbiting red dwarf stars were considered possibilities, though all but three were neither cool nor smaller enough to be considered Earth-like.
The three considered habitable – named Kepler Objects of Interest, were both warm and approximately Earth-sized, according to the findings.
One was slightly smaller than earth while the other two were bigger.
They each had a smaller orbit than earth of between 20 and 56 days and are around 300-600 light-years away.