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16 November 2017, 02:05 | Nina Hammond
Ross 128 b a world orbiting its host star just 11 light-years from Earth is seen here in this artist's expression
"Restricting the target list to quiet stars would disqualify Proxima Cen b and leave Ross 128 b as the best temperate planet known to date".
The newly discovered world, named Ross 128b, orbits a red dwarf 11 light-years away from Earth - and is moving towards us, the researchers say.
Why is it so promising?
There's been an explosion in the discovery of potentially habitable worlds in the last few years orbiting these red dwarf stars - in fact, a recent study suggests there may be as many as 60 billion planets in the habitable zone of these red dwarf solar systems out there. These specific circumstances give it better odds for sustaining a more stable environment amenable to life. The discovery of Proxima b was announced in August 2016 to huge excitement, but there are serious doubts regarding its potential habitability that stems from the nature of its red dwarf parent star, Proxima Centauri. As astronomers paid more attention, they began realizing that Proxima Centauri, like many red dwarfs, was probably incredibly active in its youth, spewing intense amounts of stellar radiation that would have nearly certainly bludgeoned the small planet. That not only means that any life that is supported by them is more likely to flourish on planets that are closer, but it also means that they're easier for us to see, because there's not such a bright sun in the way. That's obviously bad news for the survivability of life. Dubbed Ross 128 b, the newfound world is about 11 light-years from our solar system, in the constellation Virgo.
European scientists found Ross 128 b using HARPS, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher. Ross 128 b also orbits a red dwarf, but its star is much less active, so the surface of the planet is likely more temperate. That's a big range, sure, but on either extreme it's still within the realm in which life can exist.
As was previously noted, Ross 128 is now 11 light-years from Earth, but it's moving toward us and, as a result, it will one day be our nearest stellar neighbor...not for 79,000 years, but in cosmic terms, that is just the blink of an eye. The new world is now the second-closest temperate planet to be detected after Proxima b.
Haven't I heard of Ross 128 before?
The new findings have plenty of shortcomings of their own. "Some models made by theorists say that a wet Earth-size planet with such irradiation would form high-altitude clouds". There aren't really any telescopes available right now that can see Ross 128 b directly.
Some of these questions could be resolved relatively soon.
The next step is for astronomers to study the atmospheric chemistry of exoplanets like Ross 128 b using powerful new telescopes such as the ESO's Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) and NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, which will begin operations within the next few years. But others, such as the presence of water, are going to require more advanced instruments that we have yet to develop.
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