Planet hunters discover Earth-like world that could sustain life

Nearby exoplanet is a target for life

Ross 128b has a few things going for it that make it a much better candidate to support human life.

An Earth-sized exoplanet that is expected to have a surface temperature which is close to our own, has been discovered just 11 light-years from the Solar System by a team using ESO's unique planet-hunting HARPS instrument.

Astronomers have spotted a roughly Earth-mass world circling the small, dim star Ross 128, which lies just 11 light-years from the sun. But, although close, Ross 128b only received irradiation 1.38 times more than Earth.

They must find oxygen to figure out if it could be a good host planet for human colonisation or whether life already exists there.

An artist's conception shows the planet Ross 128b, with its red dwarf parent star in the background.

The planet has been able to achieve its temperate climate because it orbits an inactive red dwarf star.

Astronomers' instruments are not yet sensitive enough to spot Earth-size planets in Earth-like orbits around stars similar to our sun. Much depends on how high the planetary albedo is - the equilibrium temperature of the planet could range from -60C to 20.85C depending on what's on the surface. Abel Méndez, the director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at Arecibo, nicknamed them "the Weird!"

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Earlier this year, by the way, radio astronomers detected a unusual signal that seemed to be emanating from Ross 128. "Ross 128 is one of the quietest stars of our sample and, although it is a little further away from us (2.6x), it makes for an excellent alternative target".

"Meanwhile, it is probably preferable to refer to Ross 128 b as a temperate planet rather than as a habitable zone planet", the authors wrote. Other red dwarfs "are subject to flares that occasionally bathe their orbiting planets in deadly ultraviolet and X-ray radiation", according to a press release from the European Southern Observatory. That's a red dwarf - a type of sun that offers hope to scientists looking for exoplanets, but comes with some caveats.

Earlier this year, scientists said that they had received odd pulses coming from the star. The signals didn't appear to be local interference, since observations made of other stars by Arecibo around the same time didn't see the signal.

None of the telescopes heard anything.

In an email, Méndez said the discovery of an exoplanet around Ross 128 was a "fortunate result for our research", because his team is specifically interested in studying red dwarfs known to harbor exoplanets.

A newfound exoplanet may be one of the best bets to host alien life ever discovered - and it's right in Earth's backyard, cosmically speaking. Nevertheless, the announcement is just one more reason to get excited about new observatories like the Giant Magellan Telescope and Europe's Extremely Large Telescope.

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