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16 November 2017, 02:07 | Conrad Doyle
ESO M Kornmesser
The newly discovered world, called Ross 128b, is orbiting a red dwarf star 11 light-years away from Earth - but is getting nearer every day. Today, however, scientists have announced the location of a relatively nearby planet that may be the best candidate we've ever found for supporting life.
The orbit of Ross 128 b is 20 times more proximal (20 times closer) than the distance between the Earth and the Sun - but the planet receives only 1.38 times more irradiation, which keeps its equilibrium temperature between -60°C and 20°C (-76°F and 68°F). While this world is 1.3 x Earth's mass, it wouldn't feel like Earth - it has a dim, red sun and a year that lasts about 10 days. In particular, NIRPS, the infrared arm of HARPS, will boost our efficiency in observing red dwarfs, which emit most of their radiation in the infrared. But Proxima b orbits another Red Dwarf star that is much more active, so the planet is likely exposed to more radiation.
In other words, the planet makes the star wobble as it rotates, astronomers were able to measure the wobble with HARPS, and that measurement revealed some key information about the planet, such as its mass and how far away it is from the host star. And when they are found, then ESO's Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) will be on hand to help detect vital organic biomarkers, such as oxygen, in the atmospheres of exoplanets close to us. Proxima Centauri is only 4.2 light-years away. The scientists still have to constrain where that habitable zone lies to figure out if Ross 128 b rests inside it. After taking 116 measurements with HARPS, the team was able to conclude that an Earth-sized planet was orbiting around the star.
So, while Ross 128 b is a potentially habitable world, we haven't found aliens yet.
"Only HARPS has demonstrated such a precision and it remains the best planet hunter of its kind, 15 years after it began operations", explains Nicola Astudillo-Defru (Geneva Observatory - University of Geneva, Switzerland), who co-authored the discovery paper. While it still qualifies as a flare star, it's much more quiescent than Proxima Centauri. "Hence, it is more likely [we'll] find [signs of life] on Ross 128 b than any other star".
No extraterrestrials have been spotted on Ross 128 b, nor even any alien germs. Maybe we'll have them by the time the planet gets closer. There aren't really any telescopes available right now that can see Ross 128 b directly. Close inspection reveals that Ross 128 has a odd multiple appearance as this image was created from photographs taken over a more than forty year period by the Digitized Sky Survey 2, and the star, which is only 11 light-years from Earth, moved across the sky significantly during this time.
Just being in the habitable zone, however, doesn't guarantee Ross 128 b is actually habitable. Follow-up observations are needed to determine whether Ross 128 b orbits within or near the habitable zone where liquid water could exist on the planet's surface.
When Méndez's team looked at the results, they saw something peculiar: some odd, semi-repeating signals coming from Ross 128.
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