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Newly found frozen ‘super-Earth’ capable of harbouring human life, scientists say

17 November 2018
Newly found frozen ‘super-Earth’ capable of harbouring human life, scientists say

Barnard's Star, the planet's host star, is a red dwarf, a cool, low-mass star, which only dimly illuminates this newly-discovered world.

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. The exoplanet orbits its star in about 233 days, far less than Earth's 365 day orbit, but longer than numerous other known exoplanets discovered to date. Lacking atmosphere, its temperature is likely to be about -170ºC, which makes it unlikely that the planet can sustain liquid water on the surface. If the futurists at the Breakthrough Starshot campaign are right, we could get a probe to such a system within 30 years from launch using today's tech.

"A light source that comes towards us would have its wavelength slightly blue shifted, while a light source that moves away from us has its wavelength slightly red shifted", Ribas said. It is so old scientists think it could be one of the Milky Way's first stars.

Artistic impression of a sunset from Barnard's star b.

The planet was found using a technique called the radial velocity method that uses sensitive instruments to detect tiny wobbles of the star created by the orbiting planet's gravity.

This device, as explained by the scientists, captures the slightest "tremor" in the position of the stars in the sky, which arise as a result of their gravitational interactions with the planets.

The closest stars to the Sun. They also observed with a spectrograph at Spain's Calar Alto Observatory and added in archival data spanning 20 years from those and four other instruments, giving them a total of almost 800 measurements.

The exoplanet was found after collecting 20 years of data, including 771 individual measurements, from seven instruments. "[The candidate] is very strong in terms of the statistical significance".

One of them was the new state-of-the-art planet-hunting instrument Carmenes at the Calar Alto Observatory in Spain.

"I hope we can contribute to more discoveries like this - small planets around nearby stars", Teske said, "to ultimately help answer the question, how unique is Earth?"

It would then take 265 years and six months to for the fastest spacecraft know to man to make a rendezvous with the cold massive planet near Barnard's Star.

"After a very careful analysis, we are 99 per cent confident that the planet is there", researcher Ignasi Ribas of the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and the Institute of Space Sciences said in a statement. "At the moment we are exploring it long-distance, from Earth, but perhaps someday in the distant future we will really be able to visit these planets, so we need to find out more about them first". Already we can confidently say that of the nearest single stars large planets - gas giants - are not available.

The method they used to find the planet is called the radial velocity (or reflex velocity, which conveniently has the same initials RV) method. This means that astronomers are getting better at finding these kinds of planets outside our solar system. "This is the result of a large collaboration organized in the context of the Red Dots project, which is why it has contributions from teams all over the world, including semi-professional astronomers", concluded Guillem Anglada-Escudé from Queen Mary University of London, who co-led the effort.