Frigid planet detected orbiting nearby star

Barnard's star

We've observed an alien world orbiting Barnard's Star, a tiny red dwarf that's only six light-years away, making it the second-closest known exoplanet beyond our solar system.

The Super-earth, which orbits Barnard's Star in about 233 days, is inhospitable to humans.

Barnard's Star is a small, ancient kind of sun called a red dwarf.

In a landmark discovery, an worldwide team of astronomers led by Ignasi Ribas of the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC) and Institute of Space Sciences (IEEC- CSIC) has found a candidate planet orbiting Barnard's star.

"We all have worked very hard on this result", said co-leader Guillem Anglada-Escude at Queen Mary University of London.

Astronomers have discovered a frozen "super Earth" orbiting the closest solitary star to the Sun, a breakthrough that could shine light on our planet's nearest planetary neighbours.

It is outside the habitable zone at a distance exceeding the so-called "snow border", where liquid water can not exist and has no chance at life.

The planet's surface temperature is estimated to be around minus 170 degrees Celsius, meaning it is likely to be a frozen world which is uninviting to Earth-like life, they said.

Given how close the exoplanet is to our solar systems, future missions and telescopes should be able to provide more insight into the composition of the surface, and the atmosphere of the planet.

Ribas said that although stargazers could predict its size and orbit with relative accuracy using the Doppler effect, any attempt at this stage to find out what the new planet looked like would be "guesswork". When the star moves away from the Earth, its spectrum redshifts; that is, it moves towards longer wavelengths.

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"After a very careful analysis, we are 99% confident that the planet is there", stated the team's lead scientist, Ignasi Ribas from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and the Institute of Space Sciences, CSIC in Spain.

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"We combined archival data from other teams with new, overlapping, measurements of Barnard's star from different facilities". Until 1992, when the first exoplanets were found, and then in 1995 when the first one was found around a star like the Sun, we didn't know if other stars had planets at all.

Even the most powerful telescopes in use today would not be able to image Barnard's Star b directly.

Barnard's Star has always been "the great white whale" of exoplanet hunting, said Carnegie astronomer Paul Butler, a co-author on the Nature paper.

"The most important thing about this discovery is the host star", Paul Butler, co-author of the study and an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science, wrote in an email. But the methods we've used to detect a lot of them are biased toward finding large planets that orbit close to their host stars.

Artist's impression of Barnard's star b viewed from space. "The stars are known to show activity cycles, so this might be a cycle of stellar activity [rather than a planet]".

"The James Webb Space Telescope might not help in this case, because it was not designed for what's called high contrast imaging".

Astronomers have, since 1997, collected a large number of measurements on the oscillation movement of the star.

"We're not making the claim that this is in any way related to the van de Kamp astrometric planets", Ribas says.

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