Scientists Announce Discovery of New Planet That May Support Life

Audrey Hill
November 16, 2017

The new exoplanet, named Ross 128 b, has numerous properties necessary for supporting life: It's a similar size to Earth, it has a rocky surface, and the distance from its star potentially puts it in the "habitable zone"- the area around a star where temperatures allow water to remain liquid on the surface of a planet.

The European Space Agency has discovered a nearby planet with Earth-like temperatures orbiting a "quiet" star, where the conditions may be favourable enough to support life.

Every 9.9 days, it completes an orbit around its host star, Ross 128, which is what's known as a red dwarf star: They're the coolest, faintest and most common stars found in the universe.

A star's habitable zone is the region where liquid water can exist on a planet's surface.

Once an exoplanet is discovered, scientists look to determine more details about the planet's make-up - in particular whether the presence of key life-supporting molecules such as oxygen are present.

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).

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Ross 128b was spotted by a highly successful planet-finding instrument attached to the European Southern Observatory's 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla, Chile. "Hence, it is more likely [we'll] find [signs of life] on Ross 128 b than any other star". HARPS is a spectrograph that can detect the wobble of a star caused by the gravity of an orbiting planet.

"Because Proxima Centauri blasts its planet with strong flares and high energy radiation, yes, I think Ross 128 is much more comfortable for the development of life", Dr. Nicola Astudillo-Defru, one of the researchers on the project, told BBC News. But at 10.89 light years away, this may be the best candidate we've yet found for viable life - and it's parked in our own backyard. That means the planet may have a surface temperature similar to Earth.

Some readers may recall there's an even closer Earth-sized planet to us that is a mere 4.25 light years away called Proxima Centauri. The scientists still have to constrain where that habitable zone lies to figure out if Ross 128 b rests inside it. So why is Ross 128 b unique - apart from its rather human-sounding name? Also a red dwarf, it's considered an active star, meaning it frequently burps out intense, high-energy solar flares. "For now, we will continue to monitor the star to search for evidence of additional companions". An exoplanet is any planet not in our solar system. That's a red dwarf - a type of sun that offers hope to scientists looking for exoplanets, but comes with some caveats.

More exoplanets are being discovered by astronomers due in part to tools like HARP and ESO's Extremely Large Telescope.

Earlier this year, scientists said that they had received unusual pulses coming from the star.

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