Astronomers find 32 new planetsAstronomers have discovered 32 new planets outside our solar system, some of them only a few times larger than Earth.
The relatively small size increases the odds that these so-called exoplanets could have conditions similar to the ones that gave rise to life on Earth.
Scientists made the finds using the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher, or HARPS, attached to the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla, Chile.
The findings, presented at a conference in Porto, Portugal, raises the number of known so-called exoplanets to more than 400.
Most are giant balls of toxic gas similar to Jupiter, and would have no chance of sustaining life. But 28 are so-called "super-Earths" with masses up to 20 times the size of Earth, and are thus probably rocky planets.
Whether any are home to life forms would depend in part where they orbit in relation to their stars.
Earth sits in a so-called "Goldilocks zone" where the temperature is neither too hot for our atmosphere to be stripped away, nor too cold for our seas to freeze - but just right to have liquid water, essential to life as we know it
"We have now completed our initial five-year programme, which has succeeded well beyond our expectations," Stephane Udry, a researcher at the University of Geneva, which was behind the research, said in a statement.
No Earth-like planets were identified in the most recently-discovered group, he said.
As with the previously detected super-Earths, most of the new low-mass candidates reside in multi-planet systems, with up to five planets per system.
Distant planets, even big ones, are too small to be directly observed, and can only be detected by measuring their impact on the movement of the stars they orbit.
The first exoplanet discovered -- 51 Pegasi b -- was found in 1995, and the first super-Earth came to light in 2004.
Gliese 581e, the lightest exoplanet so far detected around a normal star, was spotted earlier this year. Planets are formed from a disc of gas and dusty debris left over from the creation of a star. Just how long this process takes is still a matter of debate. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/spac ... anets.html