Nearby exoplanet is a target for life

Posted November 16, 2017

A new earth-like planet has been found, just 11 light years from our solar system.

Ross 128 is the "quietest" nearby star to host such a temperate exoplanet and its newly discovered companion - which orbits its host star in only 9.9 days - is the second-closest temperate planet to be detected after the discovery of Proxima b past year.

Bonfils and his colleagues found Ross 128b using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), an instrument at the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Observatory in Chile.

The Earth-sized world is estimated to have a temperate climate, with surface temperatures that may also be close to Earth.

For starters, Ross 128b's host star, referred to as a "quiet" M dwarf by the study's authors, has been very kind to the exoplanet.

The only closer temperate planet is Proxima b, whose star, another red dwarf, bombards it with ultraviolet and X-ray radiation, possibly rendering it uninhabitable. HARPS is a spectrograph that can detect the wobble of a star caused by the gravity of an orbiting planet.

Ross 128 b may also one day be closer to us than Proxima b, because its solar system is moving in our direction, according to the ESO.

Ross 128 b is 11 lightyears away, the second-closest exoplanet to Earth.

In this case, HARPS spotted evidence for the existence of the newly discovered exoplanet around the red dwarf star Ross 128.

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"HARPS is a spectrograph specially created to measure the radial velocity of the stars", Nicola Astudillo-Defru, an astronomer with the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland and a member of the team that made the discovery, told Popular Mechanics in an e-mail.

"Ten years from now, we will be capable, thanks to giant telescopes, to directly "see" the planet and characterize its atmosphere", Astudillo-Defru told Futurism via email. If we have, it'll not only offer the potential to see what another planet like our own looks like - but potentially to meet the aliens that live there, or to move there ourselves. But Proxima b's parent star, Proxima Centauri, blasts out a lot of powerful flares, potentially bathing that planet in enough radiation to stunt the emergence and evolution of life, scientists have said.

But what has got people especially excited is its star, Ross 128.

Haven't I heard of Ross 128 before?

Through data from HARPS, the team found that Ross 128b orbits 20 times closer than the Earth orbits the Sun.

While researchers have expressed excitement over the discovery, the ESO notes: "Uncertainty remains as to whether the planet lies inside, outside, or on the cusp of the habitable zone, where liquid water may exist on a planet's surface". "However, it seems that Ross 128 is a much quieter star, and so its planets may be the closest known comfortable abode for possible life", it added.

Astronomers often talk about a "habitable zone" around a star - it's the range of distances where temperatures allow water to remain liquid on the surface of a planet.

The magnitude of the wobbles indicates that the planet is at least 1.35 times the mass of Earth but could easily be twice the mass of Earth.

When Méndez's team looked at the results, they saw something peculiar: some unusual, semi-repeating signals coming from Ross 128.