Astronomers announced Wednesday the discovery of an Earth-size planet around a small red star in our corner of the galaxy.
The newly discovered world, named Ross 128b, was discovered orbiting a red dwarf, 11 years light from Earth. Although that means it is much closer to the star than Earth is to the sun - in fact, the scientists' study in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics says it is about 20 times closer - a red dwarf emits significantly less heat, so the planet is able to hover closer than ours does without getting scorched.
Scientists at the La Silla Observatory in Chile detected Ross 128 b using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), which measures wobbles in stars that have planets orbiting them. Our planetary search techniques rely on measuring variations in gravity or a star's apparent magnitude as a planet transits across it, and smaller planets are much harder to find with these methods.
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While Ross 128b is considered to be a "temperate" planet, astronomers are still not certain where it lies in relation to its star's habitable zone.
Digitized Sky Survey 2 Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin This image shows the sky around the red dwarf star Ross 128 in the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin). But this star is also 280 times less luminous than our Sun, so Ross 128 b only receives about 40 percent more light than Earth does.
The planet, Ross 128 b, is Earth-sized and is now the second-closest to Earth in temperature. There isn't even any sign as to whether the planet possesses other elements essential to life as we know it, like atmospheric oxygen.
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The astronomers believe that Ross 128 b is a good candidate for further study when the European Southern Observatory's Extremely Large Telescope can begin searching the atmospheres of exoplanets for biomarkers in 2025. There aren't really any telescopes available right now that can see Ross 128 b directly. The parent star is a red dwarf, meaning it's low in mass and barely half the Sun's temperature. Such flares may well sterilize any life that might develop on such a world. Méndez's team wasn't looking for extraterrestrial signals; they were hoping to learn how red dwarf flares interacted with exoplanets.
We won't know for sure what kind of atmosphere this planet has until we look at it directly, and that may not happen for a while. As a result, its planets are thought to be the closest comfortable locations for any possible alien life.
Despite Ross 128 and Ross 128 b's distance away from Earth, it is moving towards us and is expected to surpass Proxima b and become our closest stellar neighbor in 79,000 years.
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Alongside the ESA, NASA's Kepler space telescope has also been hunting for exoplanets and since 2009 has found some 30 planets that fall within their host star's habitable zone.
"I plan to continue searching for new worlds, specially around Ross 128 because it is likely that there are more planets", Astudillo-Defru said. At that point, Ross 128b will take the crown from Proxima b and become the closest exoplanet to Earth.
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