Tech UPTechnologyThey discover the second closest exoplanet to Earth: Barnard...

They discover the second closest exoplanet to Earth: Barnard b

Image: illustration of the hypothetical surface of the exoplanet Barnard b / ESO-M. Kornmesser.

A team of astronomers has discovered an exoplanet orbiting one of the closest stars to the Sun: Barnard’s star.

At about 6 light years away, Barnard’s star is the second closest star system to us (the first is Alpha Centauri). It is a type of faint, low-mass star, a red dwarf that, on the other hand, is considered one of the best places to look for exoplanet candidates, despite the fact that our Sun is a medium-sized star. Therefore, Barnard b is the second closest known exoplanet to our Sun.

And what is this newly discovered neighbor like? Are there chances of finding signs of life or habitability in it?

It is a potentially rocky planet. That is, it has not yet been proven what its exact composition is, but it is most likely that it is a super-Earth, with a mass at least 3.2 times that of the Earth.

The year in this rock lasts 233 days, or, put another way, that is the time it takes to orbit its star.

The results, published in the prestigious journal Nature, show that the planet is located in a region of the orbit known as the ‘snow line’ (or snow line), an area much further from the habitable zone of its star, for what can not exist liquid water nor life, as we know it.

A rocky world, but frozen

Furthermore, the climate of this planet also does not help to make it a potential home. It is estimated that its surface has a temperature of about -170 ºC , which indicates that it is more of a frozen world than a planet similar to today’s Earth. However, it should be remembered that the Earth went through a period called Snowball Earth , about 650 million years ago, an ice age 75 times longer than the entire history of mankind.

So this is not to say that Barnard b is completely inhospitable, at least not throughout its entire history. In fact, the temperature of its atmosphere could be increasing, and the conditions, becoming more hospitable for life. For example, after the Earth snowball period, the largest expansion of life in the history of planet Earth emerged, known as the Cambrian explosion.

Despite the findings, scientists tend to be cautious of Barnard’s star and its planetary hosts. In the words of Dr. Guillem Anglada Escudé, of the School of Physics and Astronomy at Queen Mary University: “Barnard’s star is an object with a bad reputation among astronomers and exoplanet scientists, as it was one of the first stars in which it was initially claimed that there were planets, and later this hypothesis was proven incorrect. Hopefully we were correct this time. “

Image: graphic representation of the relative distances to the stars closest to the Sun. / IEEC / Science-Wave – Guillem Ramisa.

An innovative method of detecting exoplanets: oscillations in stars

The researchers used the radial velocity method during the observations that led to the discovery of Barnard b. This technique detects oscillations in a star likely caused by the gravitational pull of a planet in its orbit. In fact, the study is innovative not only in its discovery, but in its method, since this is the first time that this technique has been used to detect such a small planet and in turn so far from its host star.

These oscillations affect the light that comes from the star in the following way: as the star moves towards Earth, its spectrum appears slightly shifted towards the blue and, as it moves away, it shifts towards the red.

The researchers examined archival data obtained over a 20-year period and also added new observations from the latest generation of instruments , such as the Cármenes spectrometer in Spain, the ESO / HARPS instrument in Chile, and the HARPS-N instrument in the Spanish Canary Islands.

Thanks to all this rich source of data, scientists obtained the exact precision to identify the presence of the planet.

This is what Dr. Ignasi Ribas, from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and the Institute of Space Sciences of the CSIC in Spain affirms: “After a very careful analysis, we are 99% sure that the planet is there , since this is the model that best fits our observations. However, we must be cautious and collect more data to solve the case in the future. “

Despite the safety of the discovery, scientists insist on being cautious , and new research models are already underway to refute the conclusions about the characteristics of this planet. In fact, the star oscillation detection technique used for this case is an excellent candidate for obtaining images of new exoplanets in the new generation of instruments designed for it, such as the Wide Field Infrared Inspection Telescope planned by NASA (WFIRST).

The study was co-led by researchers from the Queen Mary de Londes University, and the Spanish Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and the Institute of Space Sciences of the CSIC.

And what is the closest exoplanet?

A little closer to us, 4 light years away, is Proxima Centauri, a star belonging to Alpha Centauri, the closest known star system. It was also discovered by a team led by Dr. Anglada Escudé of Queen Mary’s University in 2016. The closest exoplanet, Proxima b, orbits around it.

More information: I. Ribas et al. A candidate super-Earth planet orbiting near the snow line of Barnard’s star, Nature (2018). DOI: 10.1038 / s41586-018-0677-y

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