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Newly Discovered Exoplanets Point the Way to Avatar‘s Pandora

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In case the 3D effects and out-of-this-world action scenes haven’t convinced you Avatar is the must-see movie of the year, real science is adding to the excitement. On Monday, researchers announced the discovery of as many as six low-mass planets orbiting two nearby stars that add weight to the promise of detecting habitable worlds within the next few years. It’s the perfect promotion for the spectacular movie that, as explains, “makes you think what could possibly be out there in space waiting to be discovered on another planet.”

What makes the discovery so exciting is that two of the planets are “super-Earths” (more massive than Earth but less massive than Uranus and Neptune) and they’re the first ones ever found around a Sun-like stars. “If we want to one day find habitable planets that are really like the Earth in systems that are really like ours,” explains team member Chris Tinney of the University of New South Wales, “then those are the sorts of stars we need to be able to find low-mass planets around.”

Three of the newfound planets, with masses ranging from about five to twenty-five times that of Earth, orbit 61 Virginis (our stellar neighbor most like the Sun in terms of age, mass, and other essential properties) and have great potential for alien life, bioluminescent or otherwise. Unfortunately, even though the star is one of the closest to our solar system, at twenty-eight light-years away, the system remains far out of reach. Even fictional spaceships can’t make that trip: It would take Avatar’s ISV Venture Star over 40 years to make the journey.

But that doesn’t mean the only other world you’ll ever see in 3D is the one James Cameron created for the Na’vi. “Neptune in our Solar System has a mass seventeen times that of the Earth. It looks like there may be many Sun-like stars nearby with planets of that mass or less,” says Tinney. “They point the way to even smaller planets that could be rocky and suitable for life.” Perhaps even ones, scifi fans would hope, located in Alpha Centauri.

The planet hunters also found a 7.5-Earth-mass planet orbiting HD 1461, another near-perfect twin of the Sun located 76 light-years away. They can’t tell if it is a scaled-up version of Earth, composed largely of rock and iron, like Uranus and Neptune, composed mostly of water, or like the fictional Pandora composed of unobtainium and other valuable minerals that will help us survive in the future. Given that Cameron’s biography is called The Futurist and that he has a proven track record of making science fiction that turns out to be more fact than fiction, there’s a good chance the planet is covered in Hometrees and features floating mountains.

Just as Cameron developed new motion-capture tech to create Pandora, today’s researchers are developing new detection tech to find it. By combining data gathered at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) in New South Wales, Australia, they inferred the existence of the planets by noting the worlds’ gravitational effects on the parent star’s orbit. “What is truly exciting about the current ground-based radial velocity detection method is that it is capable of locating the very closest potentially habitable planets,” says team member Gregory Laughlin, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC.

By watching Avatar we’ll have an idea of what we might find once they pin down a nearby location. We just need to figure out how to get out there. Can Richard Branson bring us into Cameron’s future?

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