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Astronomers may have just spotted a ‘super Earth,’ and it’s not far away

Published Nov 14th, 2018 10:05PM EST
super earth discovery
Image: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Lately, a lot of the exoplanets discovered by astronomers have been incredibly far away. Spotting planets at a huge distance is still important, and every new planet researchers are able to detect adds to our knowledge of the universe and nature itself, but most of them are so distant that we’ll likely never actually visit them.

A recent almost-discovery of so-called “super Earth” could change that. Astronomers have spotted what they believe is evidence of a massive, rocky world over three times the size of Earth, but the most exciting thing about it is that it’s only around six light years away.

In a new paper published in Nature, researchers explain that they’ve detected a dip in the brightness of a nearby red dwarf known as Barnard’s star. That dip, which occurs every 233 days, might be the telltale sign that a planet is in orbit around it.

By crunching a wealth of data gathered by many different observational efforts, the scientists believe that the planet orbiting the dim star is a big ball of rock much like Earth, only significantly larger. However, because its host star is so mild, it’s likely that the planet is seriously chilly.

Compared to our own Sun, the red dwarf being orbited by this super Earth is just 0.4 percent as bright. That means the planet is getting very little energy as it drifts in orbit, offering little more than a dim glow. Because of this, the large world is likely around 247 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. You wouldn’t want to visit.

Earth-like planets are at the top of the list for scientists to scour for evidence of extraterrestrial life, but the likelihood of finding life on this newly-discovered planet is slim. Researchers believe the planet is devoid of water, which is a big must-have for life as we know it, and the icy-cold climate probably doesn’t make it very hospitable.