Newly discovered Earth-like planet could support life

16 November, 2017, 01:28 | Author: Sam Montgomery
  • Science

The planet, known as Ross 128 b, is located a mere 11 light-years from Earth, and will one day become the closest exoplanet to our Sun, dethroning our current immediate neighbor exoplanet - Proxima b.

Astronomers announced Wednesday the discovery of an Earth-size planet around a small red star in our corner of the galaxy. Ross 128 b also orbits a red dwarf, but its star is much less active, so the surface of the planet is likely more temperate. The planet, Ross 128 b, orbits the star once every 9.9 days. Scientists say a planet needs temperatures between -60°C and +20°C to be considered temperate.

This image shows the sky around the red dwarf star Ross 128 in the constellation of Virgo.

Ross 128b was spotted by a planet-finding instrument attached to the European Southern Observatory's 3.6-metre telescope in La Silla, Chile. It "is expected to become our nearest stellar neighbour in just 79,000 years - a blink of the eye in cosmic terms". Those wobbles shift stars' spectrums, and by tracking these shifts, HARPS can infer planets are present. Determining whether the planet is actually capable of supporting life as we know it, however, would require a better understanding of its atmosphere, Bonfils said.

It may seem like an out-of-this-world claim, but if there was ever a place that could support life - whether that be alien or Earthling, sometime in the future - this appears to be it.

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All of that, combined with the fact that Ross 128 is such an inactive star, makes this planet a prime candidate in the search for extraterrestrial life. The scientists still have to constrain where that habitable zone lies to figure out if Ross 128 b rests inside it. Ross 128 b is now the second-closest such world to Earth; only Proxima Centauri b, at 4.25 light years away, is closer. However, Ross 128 is a particularly calm and cool dwarf star, only about 20 percent the diameter of the sun with a little more than half the sun's surface temperature.

Vladimir Airapetian, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., questioned whether Ross 128 would be such a benign star.

"We are considering additional follow-up in light of the new discovery at radio and optical wavelengths", said Andrew Siemion, the director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, in an email. So why is Ross 128 b unique - apart from its rather human-sounding name? That's a red dwarf - a type of sun that offers hope to scientists looking for exoplanets, but comes with some caveats.

Announcements about exoplanets, those found outside our solar system, seem nearly commonplace in this golden age of discovery for astronomers.

Earlier this year, scientists said that they had received unusual pulses coming from the star. Nevertheless, the announcement is just one more reason to get excited about new observatories like the Giant Magellan Telescope and Europe's Extremely Large Telescope.

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