Pair of super-Earths found orbiting star K2-18

Pair of super-Earths found orbiting star K2-18

In a significant breakthrough in man's relentless search for life beyond Earth, a new research claims to have found a planet that could host alien life. But scientists weren't sure if the planet was a scaled-up version of Earth (a rocky or terrestrial planet) or a scaled-down version of Neptune (a gas and ice planet). K2-18b, however, is now among the most exciting bets for atmospheric study.

The researchers discovered that K2-18b, which is now being called super-Earth, and its neighbor planet, both orbit a red dwarf star, named K2-18, which is situated in the constellation Leo, around 111 light years away from Earth, reported UdeMNouvelles - Université de Montréal. The exoplanet was found to be in the star's habitable zone, meaning it could have liquid water on its surface, a necessary ingredient for life as we know it.

The new study used data collected by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which has its headquarters in Munich, Germany. Scientists, aside from two regular signals that they received every 39 days from the star's rotation and every 33 days from the planet's orbit, discovered a third signal which they received every nine days, which was the first indication that there might be another planet close to K2-18b. They measured radial velocities of stars, which can reveal the existence of planets located around the measured stars. The High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) planet-finding spectrograph installed on the telescope measures the radial velocities of stars, which are affected by any nearby planets, with the highest accuracy available, enabling it to detect even the smallest of planets.

"It was not a eureka moment because we still had to go through a checklist of things to do in order to verify the data", said Cloutier, lead author of the study published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Current technology prevents us from being able to definitively say which one it is but the fact that it could be either is a huge leap forward in our understanding of this distant solar system. "Once all the boxes were checked it sunk in that, wow, this actually is a planet", said Ryan Cloutier, who had the target of finding at least one new exoplanet during the course of his Ph.D.

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They're clearly more interested in K2-18b, with researchers saying the planet will be a prime target for Nasa's James Webb Space telescope, which will launch in 2019.

Study co-author Professor René Doyon, also from the University of Montreal, added: "There's a lot of demand to use this telescope, so you have to be meticulous in choosing which exoplanets to look at".

Engineers inspect the James Webb Space Telescope after cryogenic testing in Houston, November 19, 2017.

"It was while looking through the data of K2-18b that we noticed something unusual", he said.

"When we first threw the data on the table we were trying to figure out what it was".

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