Astronomers have discovered a new planet which may be the best candidate to support life found in the course of space exploration so far.
Known as Ross 128b, it was discovered by an planet-finding instrument attached to the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6-metre telescope in the Chilean desert. Using the Radial Velocity Method, the instrument looks for small ‘wobbles’ in the star’s motion caused by gravitational tugging of the planets which are orbiting it. Information gathered by the shifts in wavelengths of the light emitted by the star include the planet’s mass and days taken to orbit.
The planet is roughly 1.35 times the size of Earth, leading astronomers to assume that there might be a solid life-supporting surface on Ross 128 b. It lies roughly 11 light-years away from Earth and a year on the planet lasts a mere 9.9 days. Since it rotates slowly, an atmosphere – if it does exist on the planet – would be able to rest on the planet, unlike a fast-spinning planet which flings its atmosphere over time.
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The planet lies much closer to its parent star, known as Ross 128, as compared to the distance between the Sun and the Earth. While this close proximity would ordinarily make the planet exceedingly hot, it doesn’t in this case because Ross 128 is categorized as a red dwarf and is smaller and cooler compared to the Sun. This means that the planet might actually have a similar climate to Earth. Its surface temperature is estimated to be around 73 degrees F (23 degrees C).
The announcement of this discovery was greeted by excitement by astronomers as the red dwarf, Ross 128, seems to have a calm nature and is less likely to have intense bursts of radiation and solar wind that would make planets close to it inhabitable. The comfortable nature of Ross 128 provides greater chances of life on planets orbiting it.
The red dwarf also made headlines earlier this year after astronomers spotted strange pulses emanating from it. These later turned out to be background interference and not signals from extraterrestrial beings.
Over the next decade, scientists hope to study the star and its exoplanets more closely to look for more signs of life.