Frozen super-Earth exoplanet found in second closest star system

Barnard's star

European astronomers have discovered a relatively small "super-Earth" orbiting Barnard's star, the nearest to us a single star. This makes it a super-Earth-a planet that has a mass somewhere between Earth and Uranus or Neptune.

At almost six light-years away Barnard's star is the next closest star to the Sun after the Alpha Centauri triple system.

An Unforgiving Environment Barnard's star is a cool, low-mass red dwarf estimated to be at least twice as old as our Sun, with some calculations putting it at 12 billion years old.

Planets orbiting stars beyond our solar system are called exoplanets. The analysis that led to the discovery is detailed in a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. These lakes could be warmed by geothermal activity - warmth coming from the planet's core - which could keep the water in a liquid state and allow life to exist.

The red dwarf emits only around 0,4% of our sun's radiance, which means that the planet only receives around 2% of the intensity that the Earth receives from the sun. When the planet moves closer to the star, the starlight is shifted toward shorter, blue wavelengths (called blueshift) and when the planet moves farther away from the star, the starlight shifts toward longer, red wavelengths (called redshift).

Artist's impression of Barnard's Star's planet under the orange tinted light from the star.

The radial velocity method used in exoplanet hunting requires precise observations of a star's spectrum. But despite its snug proximity, the planet still sits beyond the chilly star's "snow line" - the region where water and other volatiles start turning into ice.

Scientists kept looking at the star, and now astronomers from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and the Institute of Space Sciences in Spain have assembled 20 years of data to reveal Barnard's Star b. It was discovered as part of a project to find rocky planets around red dwarfs and the instruments used to do this-including the CARMENES (Calar Alto high-Resolution search for M dwarfs with Exoearths with Near-infrared and optical Échelle Spectrographs)-are specially created to do this.

So, why are Earth-dwelling scientists so fascinated by this star and its super-Earth in the first place?

During the course of their study, Smithsonian notes, researchers found faint evidence of another planet, which would be Barnard's Star c. With the Doppler effect, as a planet orbits a star, the planet's gravitational pull causes its star to wobble a little bit.

"At a distance of only six light years, Barnard's Star b could conceivably be visited by people from Earth". "At the moment we are exploring it long-distance, from Earth, but perhaps someday in the distant future we will really be able to visit these planets, so we need to find out more about them first".

Searching for new things, she has found herself as a writer. "This signal implies that the Barnard´s star approaches and moves away from us at about 1.2 meters per second - approximately the walking speed of a person - and it is best explained by a planet orbiting it", says Ribas. "But in the U.S., they are also developing WFirst - a small telescope that's also used for cosmology", said Dr Anglada Escudé. 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 majority are so distant that we'll likely never actually visit them.

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