A new "Super Earth" planet has been discovered

Katie Ramirez
November 15, 2018

The planet around Barnard's Star is probably too cold to host life with surface temperatures of perhaps minus 170 degrees Celsius, researchers said. It takes 232.8 days to orbit the star once, which means it's much closer to the star than Earth is to the Sun.

For most of human history, people wondered if there were other planets out there in the unfathomable reaches of space. "There's so much possibility there".

This particular planet is orbiting Barnard's star, the closest solitary star to our sun, making it the second closest known exoplanet to us - the first being the one found orbiting in the three-star Proxima Centauri system. Astronomers announced the discovery of Proxima Centauri b with great fanfare in 2016. It's just six light-years from our sun, and possibly twice as old.

The tale of planet hunting around Barnard's Star starts in the 1960s when astronomer Peter van de Kemp released compelling data supporting the existence of an exoplanet. So one way or another, Barnard's star will likely make numerous appearances in the headlines over the next few years. While nearly twice as old as the sun, Barnard's star is relatively inactive and has the fastest apparent motion of any star in the night sky. Spotting planets at a huge distance is still important, and every new planet researchers are able to detect adds to our knowledge of the universe and nature itself, but majority are so distant that we'll likely never actually visit them. It is so close that the next generation of telescopes may be able to image it directly, the researchers said. The study authors also drew on data collected by amateur astronomers.

"After a very careful analysis, we are 99% confident that the planet is there", the team's lead scientist, Ignasi Ribas, said in a statement.

Artist's impression of Barnard's Star planet under the orange tinted light from the star.

Although it's on our interstellar doorstep, discovering the Barnard's Star super-Earth took an global team of astronomers using decades of spectroscopic data of the star to find it.

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Because Barnard's Star is so dim, the planet's long orbital period puts it at the "snow line", where sunlight is so faint that its surface is perpetually frozen.

"It´s definitely not in the habitable zone, no liquid water". But Teske pointed out that microbes are resilient creatures; if there is water on the planet and if other necessary ingredients are present, it's feasible that organisms might lurk in an ocean beneath the ice. This is because Barnard's star is in the class of M dwarf stars, cooler and less massive than our sun. These alien worlds occupy the mass range between the small rocky planets (like Earth, Mars and Venus) and the larger gaseous planets (like Neptune). They know it must be at least three times as massive as Earth, but it could be even larger. "But in the U.S., they are also developing WFirst - a small telescope that's also used for cosmology", said Dr Anglada Escudé.

It's the first time a planet this small and distant from its star has been detected using the radial velocity technique, which Butler helped pioneer.

Rather than moving in a straight line, his observations suggested Barnard's Star was wobbling as it moved, rocking back and forth as though pulled by unseen companions.

The researchers used the radial velocity method for their detection. But if it's confirmed, the "remarkable planet" would give "a key piece in the puzzle of planetary formation and evolution", he wrote.

They also added new observations with the Carmenes spectrometer in Almeria, Spain, the Eso/Harps instrument in Chile and the Harps-N instrument in the Canary Islands.

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