Nearby Earth-size planet may have conditions for life

A newly discovered star, known as Ross 128 b, has been held up as our most likely neighbour that could support life.

The planet might be a better candidate for life than other exoplanets found around red dwarfs because Ross 128 is a particularly quiet star, the researchers said.

Astronomers' instruments are not yet sensitive enough to spot Earth-size planets in Earth-like orbits around stars similar to our sun.

There's been an explosion in the discovery of potentially habitable worlds in the last few years orbiting these red dwarf stars - in fact, a recent study suggests there may be as many as 60 billion planets in the habitable zone of these red dwarf solar systems out there. An exoplanet is simply a planet that orbits a star that's not our sun. 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.

It is now moving towards us and is expected to become our nearest stellar neighbour in "just" 79,000 years when it will take the crown from Proxima b and become the closest exoplanet to Earth.

At 11 light years away, Ross 128 b is already a stellar neighbor, but interestingly, it will soon drop by for a visit.

Why are people so excited about Ross 128 b?

Ross 128b was spotted by a highly successful planet-finding instrument attached to the European Southern Observatory's 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla, Chile.

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"We still need to know what the atmosphere of Ross 128 b is like", co-discoverer Nicola Astudillo-Defru told BBC News. Close inspection reveals that Ross 128 has a unusual multiple appearance as this image was created from photographs taken over a more than forty year period by the Digitized Sky Survey 2, and the star, which is only 11 light-years from Earth, moved across the sky significantly during this time. But Proxima b's parent star, Proxima Centauri, blasts out a lot of powerful flares, potentially bathing that planet in enough radiation to stunt the emergence and evolution of life, scientists have said.

Vladimir Airapetian, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., questioned whether Ross 128 would be such a benign star.

Artist's impression of the planet Ross 128 b. As a result, its planets are thought to be the closest comfortable locations for any possible alien life.

Through data from HARPS, the team found that Ross 128b orbits 20 times closer than the Earth orbits the Sun.

The magnitude of the wobbles indicates that the planet is at least 1.35 times the mass of Earth but could easily be twice the mass of Earth.

Just being in the habitable zone, however, doesn't guarantee Ross 128 b is actually habitable.

A star's habitable zone is the region where liquid water can exist on a planet's surface.

When Méndez's team looked at the results, they saw something peculiar: some unusual, semi-repeating signals coming from Ross 128.

  • Stacy Houston