Research

Astronomers discover ‘super-Earth’ six light years away

Astronomers discover ‘super-Earth’ six light years away

"I hope we can contribute to more discoveries like this - small planets around nearby stars", Teske said, "to ultimately help answer the question, how unique is Earth?".

But astronomers can also look for planets by measuring their gravitational tug on a star. It would be as close to its parent star as Mercury is to our own sun - but because Barnard's Star is a dim red dwarf, surface conditions would be far too chilly for life as we know it. The analysis that led to the discovery is detailed in a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. It has a mass of at least 3.2 times the size of our Earth and orbits its star every 233 days at a distance where water would be frozen, known as the "snow line". Barnard's Star is a very low mass and dim red dwarf that produces only 0.4 percent of the radiant power our sun generates.

Since that time, however, planet hunter after planet hunter have pointed their telescopes to the star for signs of anything out of the ordinary. As it orbits one of the Solar system's closest neighbours, it presents a ideal target for future observations.

Astronomers have spotted a rocky planet orbiting Barnard's star - the closest single star to the sun, and second closest stellar system to us after the triple-star Alpha Centauri.

"With the radial velocity method, precision spectrometers are used to measure the Doppler effect". It is possible Barnard's Star b may offer similar niches for life.

Although it's on our interstellar doorstep, discovering the Barnard's Star super-Earth took an worldwide team of astronomers using decades of spectroscopic data of the star to find it. One thing we have learned through the exoplanet era is that, where one planet lurks, more are sure to follow. "It was a community effort", Ribas says. "[The candidate] is very strong in terms of the statistical significance". The letter "b" is the suffix showing it is the first planet in the system-for example, if there were another planet in this system, it would likely be called Barnard's Star c.

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The team claims high confidence that Barnard's Star b is real, but other teams will need to confirm. A few telescopes with coronagraphs-devices for masking a star's light-have directly imaged a few large planets in wide orbits, but something like Barnard's star b will require the greater resolution of giant telescopes coming in the next decade, such as Europe's 39-meter Extremely Large Telescope.

An illustration of the relative distances to the nearest stars from our sun.

Still, this new exoplanetary discovery is exciting. In the 1960s, the Dutch astronomer Peter van de Kamp, working in the United States, published his evidence for a planetary companion, based on perturbations in the motion of the star. This is where planets are detected using gravity-both the star's influence on the planet and the planet's influence on the star. The clues came from astrometric signals, which look for deviation in the path of a star from a center line due to the influence of an unseen planet.

"The new data does show evidence for a long period object. If it has any water or gas this is probably in solid form so that´s why we call it frozen", said Ribas. "We do see some variation". Scientists kept looking at the star, and now astronomers from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and the Institute of Space Sciences in Spain have assembled 20 years of data to reveal Barnard's Star b.

Because Barnard's star is so close, the separation between the planet and star in the sky will be relatively large.

That's what gives the length of the planet's year.


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