"It is most probable that there are many other planets present: not only super-Earth and Neptune-like planets...but also Earth-like planets that we cannot detect yet. Add to it the Jupiter-like planets already known, and you may well arrive at the conclusion that planets are ubiquitous."
-- European Astronomer Stephane Udry
Last week, a Swiss-French team of astronomers working in a Chilean observatory uncovered way more planets hanging out in the celestial lounge than had previously been considered. Apparently, The Universe was getting sick and tired of hearing how marvelously overpopulated Earth was, so she decided to show astronomers more of her hand. The Universe was already pretty peeved we named our rock "Earth"; she had always been partial to "Reginald."
The European researchers made two notable discoveries: First, how difficult it is to get good Swiss-French takeout south of the equator. Secondly, that -- as in Hollywood -- stars typically come with entourages. One of every three sun-like stars is now thought to contain planets around the size of ours. Astronomers are particularly excited about the prospect of living inhabitants on these planets, though any real estate developer sitting on empty apartments can tell you that's hardly a given.
The scientists also discovered the cosmos' answer to the Dixie Chicks: three planets "close to Earth's size" orbiting a single star like our sun. When the scientists say "close to Earth's size," they're actually being polite. While less massive than Jupiter or Neptune, these planets 42 light-years away are considerably more full-figured than Earth. But don't feel bad, ladies, Swiss astronomer Didier Queloz, a member of the discovery team, says the planets are also "too hot to support life." Eat your heart out, Angelina Jolie.
To discover these smaller planets, the scientists used a light wave measuring tool so sensitive it's locked under the observatory in a special room that some say was previously used to store Michael Jackson's personal belongings.
All bickering aside, planets should be happy to be called "planets" in the first place. It was just less than two years ago Pluto was callously demoted to "dwarf planet" by the International Astronomical Union after 76 years of card-carrying "real planet" status. Not that being a real planet always protects you from teasing -- just ask Uranus.
The astronomical community is delighted to tell us the universe is more crowded, but for those of us who commute to work, that's nothing new. Tell us there might be alien life out there, and we won't gaze hopefully at the limitless night sky like they do. We'll wonder how quickly they'll take our jobs, defile our language, and if they can drill three-pointers. Then we'll build a border fence around the planet.
That's just the kind of worldly neighbors we are.