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Planet hunters discover Earth-like world that could sustain life

16 November 2017

Ross 128b has a few things going for it that make it a much better candidate to support human life.

Forget Mars, scientists have discovered a new Earth-sized, possibly habitable, planet just eleven light years away. However, Bonfils stressed that "it's not the only potentially habitable planet we've detect this year - just the closest one".

The new planet was discovered by an worldwide team of astronomers using the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) at the La Silla Observatory in the high desert of Chile.

The team behind the work notes that, while most red dwarf stars experience extreme solar flares - flares that bathe their planets in deadly radiation - Ross 128 is a "quiet star".

Ross 128b orbits 20 times closer than the Earth orbits the Sun but gets less radiation than Earth.

A star's habitable zone is the region where liquid water can exist on a planet's surface.

They must find oxygen to figure out if it could be a good host planet for human colonisation or whether life already exists there.

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As its name suggests, HARPS employs the "radial velocity" method, noticing the wobbles in a star's movement induced by the gravitational tugs of orbiting planets. Ross 128 on the other hand is thought to be relatively inactive, and so may not pose as great a threat to Ross 128 b as Proxima Centauri does to Proxima b. The newly discovered exoplanet seems to have all the right qualities for extraterrestrial existence. "Ross 128 is one of the quietest stars of our sample and, although it is a little further away from us (2.6x), it makes for an excellent alternative target".

Astronomers are planning to use cutting-edge, next-generation observatories to search for evidence of biological life in the atmospheres of select Earth-sized, temperate exoplanets orbiting red dwarf stars. The researchers said the temperatures on the planet likely range from minus-76 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-60 to 20 degrees Celsius).

Bonfils said Ross 128 appears to be at least 5 billion years old - older than our solar system - and perhaps as old as 10 billion years.

That's why they're sticking to calling the planet "temperate" for now, until they can determine whether it's actually within a habitable zone or just on the cusp. If we have, it'll not only offer the potential to see what another planet like our own looks like - but potentially to meet the aliens that live there, or to move there ourselves. The world, which is about one-and-a-half times the mass of Earth, may be in the star's habitable zone, too.

"Ross 128b is very close, which will allow us to see it with a telescope such as E-ELT (European Extremely Large Telescope) in construction for 2025", Bonfils told AFP.

Earlier this year, by the way, radio astronomers detected a unusual signal that seemed to be emanating from Ross 128. Both will be able to examine worlds like Ross 128 b in new detail, offering new insights into Earth-size exoplanets like never before.

Planet hunters discover Earth-like world that could sustain life