Tech UPTechnologyBarnard's star b: icy wasteland or living exoplanet?

Barnard's star b: icy wasteland or living exoplanet?

In November last year, a team of Spanish astronomers published in Nature that they had discovered the second closest exoplanet to Earth, a world that orbits Barnard’s star, a red dwarf located six light years away.

According to the analysis of the data obtained by various telescopes, it would have a surface temperature of 170 degrees below zero, and a mass 3.2 times greater than that of Earth, at least. Barnard’s star b, as they have called it, is less than half the distance from its star as we are from ours, but that one, weak and small, emits so little energy that its planet cannot be anything other than a frozen wasteland (The illustration reflects the possible appearance of its surface).

This is how we gave the news of the discovery last November:

Size is the key

However, new research suggests that the newly discovered world could harbor life, despite its extreme coldness. Edward Guinan and Scott Engle, astrophysicists at Villanova University (Pennsylvania), have analyzed data from 15 years of telescope measurements.

His conclusion: the exoplanet is too cold to have liquid water on the outside, but it could be under its surface, similar to the underground ocean that is suspected to exist under the ice that covers Europa – one of Jupiter’s moons – a body of water in which scientists believe that the conditions for life may exist. But Guinan and Engle claim that this would only be possible if Barnard’s Star b is big enough, and solid enough.

These subterranean oceans can only form on rocky worlds, and not gas giants. The key to having liquid water under the surface of the exoplanet is that it has geothermal activity that melts the ice. That is why it is so important to pinpoint the magnitude of this celestial body.

If it is confirmed that it has 3.2 times the earth’s mass, it would fall into the category of super-earths, and would be a candidate to harbor life; If new observations discover that its mass is seven or eight times that of our world, we would be facing a gas giant of the Neptune type, where no known organism can develop.

The entry into service of the James Webb Space Telescope – in 2021, if it does not continue to accumulate delays – may be key to observing Barnard’s Star b with greater precision, and finding out if it has the necessary characteristics to host some type of organic material.

Image: ESO / M. Kornmesser

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