A team led by astronomers for Liverpool John Moores University have helped to find a least three planets that could support life. Using a remote telescope on top of a mountain on La Palma in the Canary Islands, controlled from a lab at Liverpool, the team discovered seven Earth-sized planets in a newly discovered solar system just 39 light years from Earth, scientists believe.
The six inner planets lie in a temperate zone where surface temperatures range from zero to 100C. Of these, at least three are thought to be capable of having oceans, increasing the likelihood of life.
No other star system known contains such a large number of Earth-sized and probably rocky planets.
The Liverpool telescope helped detect the planets as they passed in front of their star. It was one of a number of ground-based instruments that supported observations made by American space agency Nasa's orbiting Spitzer telescope.
Nasa's Hubble Space Telescope is already being used to search for atmospheres around the planets.
Future telescopes, including the the European Extremely Large Telescope and James Webb Space Telescope, may be powerful enough to detect markers of life such as oxygen in the atmospheres of exoplanets.
Around a fifth of sun-like stars are thought to have an Earth-sized planet in their habitable zones. Astronomers estimate there could be as many as 40 billion potentially habitable worlds in our galaxy, the Milky Way, including those orbiting red dwarfs.