A study published in the prestigious “Science” magazine Thursday revealed the discovery of a new exoplanet that appears to be ideal for searching for an atmosphere and for traces of life around a star other than our sun.
In a statement to Agence France-Presse, Jose A. Capapiero, one of the authors of the study, which was contributed by researchers from five continents, that “the ultimate goal is to find biological signs, biomarkers, in the atmosphere of exoplanets, that is, signs of life on habitable planets similar to Earth.”
The number of exoplanets that have been discovered outside the solar system over the last twenty-five years is four thousand, but so far only a small number of them have been found to have an atmosphere. Caballero explained that “they were large gas or icy planets,” but that no research has been conducted yet “on planets the size of Earth.”
The discovery of these planets allowed researchers to conduct a study on an exoplanet that “has a rocky nature like Earth,” and that could have an atmosphere “similar to our atmosphere,” says Caballero.
“We believe that this outer planet has an atmosphere,” he added.
This exoplanet was called Glies 486b, and it is about 30 percent larger than Earth, but 2.8 times heavier, and is located in the so-called habitable zone around a star.
The planet is “only” 26 light years away, which makes it the third closest transiting exoplanet among the outer planets known to scientists. A transient adjective means that it is on a path in which it is seen passing in front of its star.
The researchers used two different methods to discover it. The first is to observe the change in the light emitted from the star as the planet passes in front of it, and the second is the radial velocity that measures the “vibrations” of the star under it due to the effect of the planet’s gravity.
Because Glies 486B is so close to its star, it takes less than a day and a half to orbit around it. In addition, the star (called “Glies 486”) is extremely bright. These two factors made it possible to obtain a lot of data, and thus to study it with this degree of accuracy.
“We reviewed 350 red dwarf stars for signs of small planets,” said lead author of the study, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy Trifon Trifonov.
But the proximity of this exoplanet to its star makes it extremely hot (at least 430 degrees Celsius). It is “filled with volcanoes and lava rivers,” and thus “uninhabitable,” Trifonov noted.
However, if this planet had an atmosphere, “all distant planets (from the star) with similar characteristics would have atmospheres,” and they would likely be habitable, according to Jose A. Caballero. If it did not have an atmosphere, then the same would apply to other planets in orbit.
And it is difficult to monitor these planets because they are farther from their star, and thus pass less in front of it. Hence the need to “start from some point”.
Trifonov described Glies 486b as “a remarkable discovery that is expected to become a key element in atmospheric research for rocky exoplanets.”
Trifonov is anxiously awaiting the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for this year. Thanks to him, it will be possible, in three years at best, to determine whether or not this exoplanet has an atmosphere, and to provide information on its formation.
Then, perhaps “in a decade or two,” one of his perspectives will let him know if there are traces of life, José A. hopes. Caballero.
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