There’s an ‘Earth-like’ planet with an atmosphere just 39 light-years away

There are a lot of good reasons to be captivated by the exoplanet GJ 1132b. Located in the constellation Vela, it’s a mere 39 light-years from Earth — just a hop, skip and a jump in galactic terms. It’s similar to Earth in terms of size and mass, and it dances in a close-in orbit around its star, a dimly burning red dwarf.

And, astronomers recently discovered, it has an atmosphere.

Did you enjoy this article?
Signup today and receive free updates straight in your inbox. We will never share or sell your email address.

The finding, published in the Astronomical Journal, is the first detection of an atmosphere around a terrestrial “Earth-like” planet orbiting a red dwarf star — and it suggests there could be millions more.

Although the researchers call the planet “Earth-like,” the term is only applicable in its broadest sense. GJ 1132b is so close to its sun that it more likely resembles Venus than Earth. Astronomers estimate its average temperature to be about 700 degrees Fahrenheit, and that’s without taking into account the potential greenhouse effect of its atmosphere. It is also probably tidally locked, meaning that gravity keeps one side of the planet constantly facing the star, while the other is cast in permanent shadow. GJ 1132b would not make a cozy home for life — at least, not life as we know it.

There’s an ‘Earth-like’ planet with an atmosphere just 39 light-years away
An artist’s conception of the exoplanet GJ 1132b, which orbits the red dwarf star GJ 1132. Astronomers have managed to detect the atmosphere of this Earthlike planet. (MPIA)

But the presence of an atmosphere around the exoplanet could have consequences in the search for life on worlds beyond our own, according to lead author John Southworth, an astrophysicist at Keele University in the United Kingdom. Red dwarfs like the one GJ 1132b orbits are the most abundant type of star in the universe, and exoplanet surveys suggest that terrestrial planets around them are also common. If one of them has an atmosphere, then why not more?

“It shows that the huge number of planets in the universe which are like this could have atmospheres themselves and maybe life,” Southworth said.

GJ 1132b was detected in 2015 using the transiting method for exoplanet discovery. Astronomers at a telescope in Chile monitored the light emanating from the planet’s host star, GJ 1132, for tiny dips caused by the planet passing in front of it. Their observations revealed that GJ 1132 dims by 3 percent once every 1.6 days — showing how frequently the planet orbits the star.

When GJ 1132b’s discovery was announced, Southworth had developed a technique for modifying the transiting method to determine whether a thin envelope of gas might surround a passing planet by separating the star’s light into its component parts. He and his colleagues angled their telescope, an instrument with a 2.2-meter-wide mirror located in the high desert of Chile. They found that light in what’s known as the “z-band” — a range of wavelengths in the near-infrared end of the spectrum — dimmed just slightly more than other wavelengths. This is the type of light that was being absorbed by the planet’s atmosphere, while all the others passed through.

More detailed observations will be required to determine what the atmosphere is made of. Southworth suggested that the absorption of near-infrared light suggests it could be rich in water vapor or methane.

Marek Kukula, the public astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, told the BBC that Southworth’s paper “is a nice proof of concept.”

“If the technology can detect an atmosphere today, then it bodes well for being able to detect and study the atmospheres of even more Earth-like planets in the not-too-distant future,” Kukula said.

The discovery proves not only that Southworth’s technique can be used to detect atmospheres, but that it’s possible for planets hosted by red dwarfs to contain them. These stars are known for high levels of activity that could potentially strip planets of their protective gases — much as the sun depleted Mars’s atmosphere when the Red Planet lost its magnetic field. The discovery at GJ 1132b, Southworth said, makes him optimistic that this needn’t always be the case.

A statement from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, where several of Southworth’s co-authors are based, noted that atmosphere detection is an essential component of scientists’ strategy for detecting life on an exoplanet. Astronomers are on the lookout for “biosignatures” — specific ratios of certain chemicals that can best be explained by the presence of living organisms. On Earth, for example, the presence of large amounts of oxygen in our atmosphere is the signature of the photosynthetic organisms that populate our planet.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Southworth cautioned.

“Finding life is still a long way away, probably decades,” he said. “Presuming it exists.”



There’s an ‘Earth-like’ planet with an atmosphere just 39 light-years away

Did you enjoy this article?
Signup today and receive free updates straight in your inbox. We will never share or sell your email address.

Leave a Reply

66 responses to “There’s an ‘Earth-like’ planet with an atmosphere just 39 light-years away”

  1. We need a alien mothership to take us there all aboard everyone the alien mothership should have all the equipment and landing gear to explore the planet what exciting find lets go and explore this planet

    • Mohd; We back-engineered Alien FTL Drive Systems in the 1960’s, if not earlier. Look up Paul Hellyer, and Ben Rich, on You Tube. There is a long list of books I could give you. Start with “Kennedy’s Last Stand,” by Michael E. Salla.

  2. Ricki, we have back-engineered their Drive Systems decades ago. We have been doing Interstellar travel at hundreds and thousands of times the speed of light. A couple books just to get you started. “Kennedys Last Stand,” by Michael E. Salla, “Dark Mission,” by Richard C. Hoagland & Mike Bara. Look up Paul Hellyer, and Ben Rich on You Tube. Also, if we sent the people you mentioned, they might not be allowed to exit the ship when it landed.

  3. The light-year is an interesting concept: If time slows to a stop as one reaches light-speed, then 39 years may not be actual years. However, we still need to develop such a technology and therefore, it’s a hell-uv-a-lot more than a hop, skip and jump. Me thinks this author is caught up in fantasy.

  4. Fyi you shouldn’t​ have told us humans now our controling government is gonna go destroy that one too. Gonna tax the shit outta it too. Water, trees everything anything. And call it progress..

  5. 39 light years is pretty damn far away, lmfao we don’t even have the technology to make it around the earth in less than an hour. Sadly we will never see another planet with life on it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *