Nearby planet is a target for life

Nearby planet is a target for life

Although it is now 11 light-years from Earth, Ross 128 is moving towards us and is expected to become our nearest stellar neighbour in just 79 000 years-a blink of the eye in cosmic terms.

Bonfils and his colleagues found Ross 128b using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), an instrument at the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Observatory in Chile. Now we welcome a new tantalizing exoplanet to the group, the second closest we know of, also Earth-sized and temperate, orbiting a calm red dwarf star: Ross 128 b. This may help Ross 128 b's chances of being the closest known "comfortable abode for possible life".

Other notable discoveries of Earth-size exoplanets in recent years, like the TRAPPIST planets and Proxima b, were also found around these types of stars. Ross 128 b will by then take the crown from Proxima b and become the closest exoplanet to Earth!

The closest one, known as Proxima b, may be less hospitable for life. But it orbits a rather active red dwarf and, as a result, receives about 30 times more extreme ultraviolet radiation than Earth. By contrast, Ross 128 is a quiescent red dwarf that is not subject to such fierce outbursts.

In common with many red dwarf stars, Proxima Centuari is an active star, wracked with huge stellar flares.

Study co-author Dr Nicola Astudillo-Defru, of the University of Geneva in Switzerland, said: "This discovery is based on more than a decade of HARPS intensive monitoring together with state-of-the-art data reduction and analysis techniques".

In the search for habitable worlds beyond our Solar System, astronomers generally look for low-mass, rocky and temperate planets much like our own. Scientists found that the exoplanet orbits Ross 128 around 20 times closer than the Earth orbits the Sun. But Ross 128 is much cooler than the sun, so the newfound world is likely temperate, the researchers said. In fact, lead author Xavier Bonfils (Institut de Planétologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble - Université Grenoble-Alpes/CNRS, Grenoble, France), named their HARPS programme The shortcut to happiness, as it is easier to detect small cool siblings of Earth around these stars, than around stars more similar to the Sun. Ross 128 b's location - either inside, outside or on the edge of the habitable zone - could determine whether the planet's surface could contain liquid water. Ross 128, the star in the constellation Virgo that this new exoplanet orbits, on the other hand, has been called inactive or quiet because it does not gush out similar amounts of radiation. Considering the oldest human remains are thought to be hundreds of thousands or even millions of years old, it's not insane to think our species could still be roaming the Earth when Ross 128 b becomes the closest exoplanet to our home world.

It might now be 11 light-years from Earth, but Ross 128 is moving towards us and is expected to become our nearest stellar neighbour in 79,000 years.

Finding oxygen in the atmosphere of Ross 128 b - or any other nearby planet - would be a strong indicator that perhaps the world was not just habitable but actually hosted extraterrestrial life.

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