Astronomers Reckon They've Found A "Frozen Super-Earth"

15 November, 2018, 23:13 | Author: Darnell Taylor
  • An artist's rendition of Barnard's star b with the star in the background.                  ESO  M. Kornmesser

"There's not so many stars in our immediate neighborhood".

Less than six light-years away from our Sun, the potential planet orbits Barnard's Star, a well-studied low-mass red dwarf star in the Ophiuchus constellation.

The newly published study lays out the basics of the exoplanet.

In the coming decade, the next generation of astronomical observatory will revolutionise our ability to peer into the space close to the nearest stars, looking for the dim glow of their planets, reflecting the light of their host stars.

Despite being relatively close to its parent star, the planet receives less than 2 percent of the energy Earth gets from the sun.

"Or it may be what we call a mini-Neptune, like a scaled-down version of the gas giants of our solar system". The team of researchers combined 20 years worth of data from seven separate instruments to make their conclusion and discover the planet.

Since that time, however, planet hunter after planet hunter have pointed their telescopes to the star for signs of anything out of the ordinary.

Given its proximity to our solar system and its long orbit, future missions and telescopes will be able to provide new insights about Barnard's star b.

A new "Super Earth" planet has been discovered orbiting a nearby star system so how quickly can humans reach it and would we want to?

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"It´s important because it´s really our nextdoor neighbour and we like to meet our neighbours in general", Ignasi Ribas, from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and Spain´s Institute of Space Sciences, told AFP.

Patterns in those spectral variations can point to the gravitational wobbles induced by a planet orbiting an alien star.

In addition, the new find provides further evidence that planets are almost ubiquitous around red dwarf stars, said Ignasi Ribas, an astronomer and director of the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia in Spain, who led the work.

Barnard's Star has always been "the great white whale" of exoplanet hunting, said Carnegie astronomer Paul Butler, a co-author on the Nature paper.

This discovery showcases the power of the radial velocity technique for detecting small planets. "This is going to be one of the best candidates", says astronomer Nikku Madhusudhan of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who was not part of the discovery team. One thing astronomers are confident about, though, is that this new planet is not habitable.

"Much of the universe is still a complete mystery", Ribas said. "[The candidate] is very strong in terms of the statistical significance". One of the main architects of exoplanet research, the astronomer Peter van de Kamp, proposed more than 50 years ago that this star could host a planet. At the time, the case for a planetary object (instead of some kind of activity intrinsic to the star) wasn't strong enough to stand on its own.

Attempting to confirm the hypothesis, astronomers have regularly observed the Barnard´s star with high precision spectrometers such as CARMENES, at Calar Alto Observatory.

Graphic representation of the relative distances to the nearest stars from the sun. Aside from the Alpha Centauri system, it is the closest star to the Solar system. As a result, Barnard's Star b lies beyond what is known as the ice line, so far from the star that water would freeze harder than rock.

From these measurements they are able to estimate a planet's mass and orbital period. Even so, the size of the newly found planet is just on the edge of what current instruments can detect. In the 1960s, the Dutch astronomer Peter van de Kamp, working in the U.S., published his evidence for a planetary companion, based on perturbations in the motion of the star.



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