Science

Astronomers find exoplanet orbiting Barnard's star, fourth closest stellar neighbor

Astronomers find exoplanet orbiting Barnard's star, fourth closest stellar neighbor”

When the next generation of telescopes come online, scientists will be able to characterise the planet's properties. Barnard's Star is what we call an M3.5 star, with just 0.16 times the Sun's mass and 0.18 times its diameter.

But this frozen "super Earth", the second-closest exoplanet known to science, is a tantalizing clue to what else might be out there.

Finding a planet near Barnard's Star shows the value of combining a bunch of datasets on planet searching, something that is already ongoing with the Red Dots campaign, whose goal is to find terrestrial planets at stars nearby our own sun. One of those stars, Proxima Centauri, is orbited by a small planet, but the star's tendency to spew flares of deadly radiation means its planet is unlikely to be habitable. Planets around red dwarfs tend to skew to Earth-size - bigger planets around these kinds of stars are more rare - and red dwarfs are by far the most common kind of star in the galaxy, outnumbering more massive stars like the Sun by more than five to one.

Because Barnard's Star is so dim, the planet's long orbital period puts it at the "snow line", where sunlight is so faint that its surface is perpetually frozen. The newly discovered one is the second closest to our solar system ever found.

"A light source that comes towards us would have its wavelength slightly blue shifted, while a light source that moves away from us has its wavelength slightly red shifted", Ribas said. Smaller and older than our sun, it is among the least active red dwarfs known.

The European Space Agency's Gaia Space Observatory may be able to make detections that would further confirm the presence of a planet around Barnard's Star, he said, but those data aren't expected to be released until the 2020s.

In addition, the new find provides further evidence that planets are almost ubiquitous around red dwarf stars, said Ignasi Ribas, an astronomer and director of the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia in Spain, who led the work.

A team of astrophysicists believe they have discovered a huge, icy, dimly-lit "Super-earth" - 3.2 times as massive as our planet - and it's just six light-years away, according to a new report published this week in the journal Nature.

"We knew we would have to be patient".

Graphic representation of the relative distances to the nearest stars from the sun.

A handout picture released by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) on November 13, 2018, shows an artist's impression of a "Super-Earth" planet viewed from space.

Researchers hope to study the planet using a variety of instruments that would allow for direct observations. More recently, most exoplanets have been detected using a different technique known as the transit method.

But astronomers can also look for planets by measuring their gravitational tug on a star.

Lead astronomer Dr Ignasi Ribas, from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia in Spain, said the team had studied 771 measurements. "However we must remain cautious and collect more data to nail the case in the future". If the existence of Barnard's Star b is confirmed, it may indicate there are other, smaller worlds orbiting this ancient star.

The new candidate planet, Barnard's Star b, is thought to have a mass between those of Earth and Neptune in the Solar system. Most exoplanets, including the thousands identified by NASA's recently retired Kepler space telescope, were found using the "transit" technique: looking for a periodic dip in starlight as a planet passes in front.



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