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Astronomers spot tempting ‘Super-Earth’ in a nearby star system

Published May 13th, 2020 11:02PM EDT
super earth

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  • A Super-Earth was spotted near the galactic center, and it appears to be in the habitable zone of its star.
  • The planet is larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune, and its star is just 10% as massive as our own Sun.
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If mankind ever does manage to make it off this planet in large enough numbers to sustain a civilization elsewhere, we’ll obviously want to find a world that is similar to Earth. Astronomers have already discovered a number of potential candidates that offer the slim hope of eventually becoming our “Earth 2,” and researchers from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand just added another to the list.

It’s an exoplanet called Kepler-62f, and it’s a member of an exclusive group of “Super-Earths” that reside within the habitable zones of their respective stars. In the case of Kepler-62f, though, there are a number of questions that remain to be answered before we can declare it suitable for life.

First, the good stuff. Kepler-62f is believed to be a rocky planet like our own, though it’s likely larger than Earth and smaller than Neptune. It’s within the habitable zone of its host stary — where temperatures would allow for liquid water to exist on its surface — but it orbits at a much slower rate than Earth does. In fact, a year on Kepler-62f is over 600 days long.

The star at the center of the planet’s system is tiny, even when compared to our own undersized star. It has just 10% the mass of our Sun, which helps explain the slower orbit of Kepler-62f. All of this sounds pretty good if we’re imagining the existence of life on Kepler-62f, but it’s still far too early to celebrate.

We still have no clue as to the condition of the planet’s atmosphere (if it even has one) or the features of its surface. It could a dried-up, burnt-out husk, or it could be covered with water. We just don’t know.

As the researchers describe in their paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, the discovery of Kepler-62f was made possible thanks to the magic of a technique called gravitational microlensing.

“The combined gravity of the planet and its host star caused the light from a more distant background star to be magnified in a particular way. We used telescopes distributed around the world to measure the light-bending effect,” Dr. Herrera Martin, lead author of the paper, explains.

“To have an idea of the rarity of the detection, the time it took to observe the magnification due to the host star was approximately five days, while the planet was detected only during a small five-hour distortion. After confirming this was indeed caused by another ‘body’ different from the star, and not an instrumental error, we proceeded to obtain the characteristics of the star-planet system.”