Signs of water have been found in the atmospheres of planets orbiting distant stars, which may mean our galaxy is teeming with life. Astronomers looked for water near 17 stars, all of which are thought to have planetary systems orbiting around them. They used powerful telescopes to search for microwaves that come from water in a planet’s atmosphere. “This result is astonishing if it’s true,” says astronomer Geoff Marcy.

One of the planetary systems orbits a star 50 light years away from Earth. It has three planets with masses up to four times the size of Jupiter. They are all gas giants like Jupiter, although it?s possible the solar system could also contain Earth-like planets that harbor life.

There are also signs of water near two much closer stars: Epsilon Eridani, a Sun-like star 10 light years away, and Lalande 21185, a red dwarf about 8 light years away. Between them, they also have three planets with a mass similar to Jupiter. But these planets are unlikely to have ETs. “These gas giants presumably have no solid or liquid surface,” says astronomer Tim Brown.

Although having water doesn?t make a planet habitable, it shows that one of the key chemicals for life is common on alien worlds. “Water’s at the top of the shopping list of ingredients for life,” says astronomer Hugh Jones. “This is a very exciting first step.”

We?ve discovered another possible ET habitat: One of the brightest stars in the sky has a planet the size of Saturn orbiting around it. The star has been named ?Fomalhaut,? from the Arabic ?Fum al Hut,? meaning ?The Fish?s Mouth.? “We believe Fomalhaut looks quite similar to our own solar system when it was only 200 million years old,” says astronomer Ben Zuckerman.

Zuckerman?s team spotted a distortion in the disk of dust that surrounds Fomalhaut, and think it must be caused by the gravitational influence of an unseen planet. “We were amazed to find that the disk is actually bent about the star,” says team member Wayne Holland. “This strongly suggests there is an orbiting giant planet shaping the dust we see.”

Our Sun, like Fomalhaut, formed from a huge cloud of gas and dust. Leftover material went into orbit around the sun, and eventually turned into planets. The Fomalhaut solar system is still forming out of the same kind of dust and debris, meaning it?s too young to have developed life?but it could contain Earth-like life in the future. If, after millions of years, it develops thinking ETs who travel into space, they could discover a dead Earth with only a few relicts left to show it was once inhabited?the way Mars looks to us now.

Some people say that ETs are here already. Lissette Larkins tells about her personal experiences with them in ?Talking With Extraterrestrials,” click here.

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