This week, a group of scientists announced the discovery of “GJ 1132b,” a rocky Earth-sized planet orbiting a red dwarf star and “arguably the most important planet ever found outside the solar system.”
The exoplanet was detected using 40cm robotic telescopes at the Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile and by applying the “transit method,” which helps discover planets when they pass in front of the star (or sun) they are orbiting and briefly block that starlight. That momentary loss of light can be measured and translated into data that helps determine if it was indeed caused by a planet. (See video below for more information on how GJ 1132b was discovered.)
Features of the Exoplanet
Located in the constellation of Vela (in the southern sky), GJ 1132b is approximately 16% larger than Earth and three times closer to Earth – 39 light years to be exact – than any other known Earth-sized rocky planet around another star.
The exoplanet orbits 1.4 million miles from its star, which is very close considering that Mercury, the closest planet to our star (the sun), orbits at 36 million miles distance. Because of that, GJ 1132b’s surface temperatures reach 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
“GJ 1132b is too warm to be habitable, but scientists have yet to fully explore our cosmic neighborhood for worlds that potentially harbor life,” Drake Deming, an astronomer at the University of Maryland, told Nature about the surface, which is too hot to retain liquid water, making it inhospitable to life, but not hot enough to burn off any atmosphere that formed on the planet.
The atmosphere will be at the center of attention for research regarding the speed of winds, colors of sunsets, as well as the chemistry of the atmosphere itself.
Since GJ 1132b is so close to Earth, telescopes will most likely be able to observe any signs of life due to the atmosphere the exoplanet might have.
“If this planet still has an atmosphere, then we might find other, cooler planets that also have atmospheres and orbit small stars. We can then imagine interrogating the atmospheres for molecules that come from life,” said Zachory Berta-Thompson of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.
The scientists are now hoping to begin more detailed research with the help of the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes as well as the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2018. Because the GJ 1132b is “nearby, it’s Earth-like, and its star won’t interfere,” says Drake, it will allow astronomers to observe the object with unprecedented fidelity.
Image Credit: Artist’s Rendering of GJ1132b by Dana Berry