PALO ALTO, CA—In what is being hailed as the most significant find in the field of planetary astronomy in decades, astronomers at the Palo Alto Observatory on Monday identified a new, previously unknown solar system approximately four feet from the Earth's surface.

The system, located directly over nearby Van Nuys, is described as "a stable, elliptical binary system with at least four major planets, including two gas giants, an asteroid belt and several moons, approximately 17 million billion miles in diameter and some four feet off the ground."

Though the global scientific community is still reeling from the magnitude of the Palo Alto team's research, efforts are underway to analyze the new planetary system using telescopic spectrographic analysis, as well as shovels, in gathering data from distances of up to 48.5 inches.

Dubbed "Proximitus Terrari," or "Right Next to the Ground," the new system proves to be Earth's nearest celestial neighbor, beating out the next-closest system, Alpha Centauri, which is only four light-years from our sun, by a distance of four light-years minus a few feet.

Astronomers were also quick to put the new discovery into perspective. "Often it is difficult for the layman to comprehend the numbers involved when we speak in terms of celestial distances," Palo Alto astronomer James Chang said. "So, to help you understand, picture, if you will, an everyday household yardstick. Now imagine that yardstick, plus one-third of another yardstick more. This should give you some idea of what we mean by 'four feet.' In astronomical terms, it's really close indeed."

Added Chang: "You know, not many people realize that a whale is not a fish at all, but a mammal, like you and me."

Palo Alto astronomers believe this photograph may be evidence of a previously unknown planet.

Astronomers say the reason the new system went undetected for so long is that scientists traditionally aim their telescopes outward from the Earth's surface, equipping their observatories with lenses designed to scan trillions of miles away. "Nobody ever thought to look within the one-to-five-foot range before Palo Alto," a NASA spokesperson said.

"Our initial studies of the new system's closest body indicate that its radiation spectrum possesses a heavy composition of boron and magnesium," Palo Alto team leader Stanislaw Lando told reporters. "Also, researchers crawling under the planet who reached up and grabbed handfuls of it report that it feels sandy, and has big purple rocks on it."

Future research projects include a NASA mission to lean a ladder against the planet and attempt a manned climb to its surface, a plan tentatively scheduled for November 1997, with a projected cost of approximately 60 bucks.

Explaining the high cost of the mission, NASA director Frank Forman said, "We'd like to get a really high-quality ladder, just to be safe."

An unrelated plan, not sponsored by NASA, has already gone into effect, with an area car dealership attaching a 20 x 40-foot vinyl banner to the planet's exterior crust, which reads, "Al Vitense Chevy-Geo Is Out Of This World!"

"We must remember that when we observe a celestial object in the night sky, we are observing light rays that left that heavenly body a proportionate amount of time ago to the distance that object is from us," Lando said. "It takes more than four years for light from Centauri to reach our telescopes. In the case of the Proximitus system, though, this time-lag is significantly shorter, perhaps even one-third of that."

Added Lando, "We must also remember not to get too close, as our telescopes might bump into it, poking us in the eye with the other end."

So far, probes have detected no signs of life on the planet, or its neighbor, Proximitus Beta, located about a half-mile south, near the expressway entrance. However, scientists are still earnestly searching the two orbital bodies for evidence, both by penetrating their atmospheres with microwave transmissions and by standing next to them shouting up at their surfaces in the hopes that contact with some form of life may be forthcoming.