ESOcast 137 Light: Temperate Planet Orbiting Quiet Red Dwarf (4K UHD)

Nearby planet ‘could host alien life’- and it’s moving towards Earth

Announcements about exoplanets, those found outside our solar system, seem nearly commonplace in this golden age of discovery for astronomers.

Ross 128 is the "quietest" nearby star to host such a temperate exoplanet and its newly discovered companion - which orbits its host star in only 9.9 days - is the second-closest temperate planet to be detected after the discovery of Proxima b previous year.

The properties of this newly discovered planet - called Ross 128 b - make it a target in the search for life elsewhere in the cosmos.

According to the ESO, red dwarf stars are some of the "coolest, faintest and most common" stars in the Universe, which make them the best targets for astronomers to search for when hunting potential alien worlds. Ross 128 appears at the center of the picture.

It was discovered by a team of researchers who are using the European Space Agency's High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

"HARPS is a spectrograph specially created to measure the radial velocity of the stars", Nicola Astudillo-Defru, an astronomer with the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland and a member of the team that made the discovery, told Popular Mechanics in an e-mail.

The only closer temperate planet is Proxima b, whose star, another red dwarf, bombards it with ultraviolet and X-ray radiation, possibly rendering it uninhabitable.

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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.

The exoplanet around Ross 128 orbits about 20 times closer to its host star than the Earth to the sun, making a trip around the star every 9.9 days. They are also considered to be among the best hopes for supporting life on planets outside our solar system because they exist within the "habitable zones" of their stars, where liquid water could pool on the surface of the planet and potentially support life as we know it.

Radiation is likely much less of an issue for Ross 128b, because its parent star is not an active flarer, said discovery team leader Xavier Bonfils, of the Institute of Planetology and Astrophysics of Grenoble and the University of Grenoble Alpes in France. Interestingly, in June, astronomers detected mysterious signals coming from Ross 128.

While Ross 128 b shares two very important characteristics with Earth, little else about it is familiar to us.

Ross 128 however appears to be far quieter than most red dwarfs suggesting that it could have remained inactive for long enough for the planet to become habitable. It "is expected to become our nearest stellar neighbour in just 79,000 years - a blink of the eye in cosmic terms". And when they are found, then ESO's Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) will be on hand to help detect vital organic biomarkers, such as oxygen, in the atmospheres of exoplanets close to us.

"I plan to continue searching for new worlds, specially around Ross 128 because it is likely that there are more planets", Astudillo-Defru said.

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