Planet hunters discover Earth-like world that could sustain life

Enlarge  Artist’s impression of the planet Ross 128

That makes Ross 128 b the second closest potentially habitable exoplanet to Earth we know about after Proxima b, a rocky world that orbits around the nearest star to our Solar System, Proxima Centauri.

Ross 128 b orbits 20 times closer to its star than the Earth orbits the Sun.

The discovery was made using the ESO's High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) at the Las Silla Observatory in Chile.

"This is the closest Earth-mass planet potentially in the habitable zone that orbits a quiet star", Xavier Bonfils, an astrophysicist at the University of Grenoble Alpes in France, told Space.com.

In this case, HARPS spotted evidence for the existence of the newly discovered exoplanet around the red dwarf star Ross 128. Even so, due to a variety of factors Ross 128 b is tied for fourth on a list of potentially most habitable exoplanets, with an Earth Similarity Index value of 0.86. In addition, it's the closest planet to have been observed orbiting an inactive red dwarf star - an arrangement that may raise the likelihood that it could sustain life.

It's unknown what sort of atmosphere Ross 128 could have.

Humanity will also get an increasingly better view of Ross 128 b.

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Another tantalizing planet has been found outside our Solar System: an Earth-sized world that's our cosmic next-door neighbor - and it could be in just the right spot to host life.

That's led scientists to believe it has a temperature between -60°C and 20°C although it's unclear whether water exists there.

Still, while Ross 128 b is a fascinating discovery, it's way too early to say anything definitive about its potential. However, Ross 128 is a particularly calm and cool dwarf star, only about 20 percent the diameter of the sun with a little more than half the sun's surface temperature. That plausibly puts it in the habitable zone, but scientists can't yet pin down its vital signs with certainty. The seven-billion-year-old star's rotation has slowed through the years, meaning it doesn't subject Ross 128b to powerful stellar flares like younger, faster-spinning stars do.

The planet is also roughly the same size as Earth. With the latest technology, it takes about 141,000 years to reach this planet. Abel Méndez, the director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at Arecibo, nicknamed them "the Weird!"

Often, red dwarfs release periodic flares. "For now we will continue to monitor the star to search for additional companions", wrote Astudillo-Defru. As a result, its planets are thought to be the closest comfortable locations for any possible alien life.

More exoplanets are being discovered by astronomers due in part to tools like HARP and ESO's Extremely Large Telescope. Close inspection reveals that Ross 128 has a unusual multiple appearance as this image was created from photographs taken over a more than forty year period, and the star, which is only 11 light-years from Earth, moved across the sky significantly during this time.

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