Scientists discover 'nearby' Earth-like planet that could potentially support life

Enlarge  Artist’s impression of the planet Ross 128

An global team of astronomers has discovered a temperate Earth-sized world with the potential to harbor alien life.

Ross 128 b orbits 20 times closer to its star than the Earth orbits the Sun.

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. 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.

Though both Ross 128 and Proxima Centauri are red dwarfs - the most common type of star in the Milky Way galaxy - they are very different objects.

He said Ross 128b will by then take the crown from Proxima b and become the closest exoplanet to Earth.

Ross 128 b is 20 times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun, but because the star is small, dim and cool, the planet would still be at a potentially comfortable temperature.

Additionally, red dwarf "flare" stars like Ross 128 and Proxima Centauri periodically erupt showers of ultraviolet and X-ray radiation, which would be harmful to Earth-like lifeforms.

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Such conditions could potentially support liquid water, indispensable to life as we know it. Ross 128 b will be a prime target for ESO's Extremely Large Telescope, which will be able to search for biomarkers in the planet's atmosphere. Another good news is that the planet is located quite close to us, compared to the other such planets that have been discovered so far, at just 11 light years outside the solar System. Scientists say a planet needs temperatures between -60°C and +20°C to be considered temperate.

Its most recent discovery came in early 2017 and featured an impressive 10 new planets all of which fall within the "goldilocks zone". But even if solar flares billions of years ago stripped away the planet's atmosphere, it could have been replenished by gases emanating from the planet's interior, Bonfils said.

"This close orbit means the planet is likely tidally locked to its star, like the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets".

In May, Abel Méndez, an associate professor of physics and astrobiology at the University of Puerto Rico, led a campaign at Arecibo Observatory to examine radio emissions coming from several nearby red dwarf stars.

Ross 128 is an old, inactive red dwarf star that sits 11 light-years away.

"I plan to continue searching for new worlds, specially around Ross 128 because it is likely that there are more planets", Astudillo-Defru said. "If we are able to identify all three [gases] in the same exoplanet atmosphere, it would be a smoking gun for life on the surface", says Bonfils. Close inspection reveals that Ross 128 has a unusual 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.

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