The universe is indeed filled with so much more stuff than we could have imagined — stars, planets, moons, galaxies, exoplanets, and the most awesome of them all, black holes. Thinking about the universe would figuratively blow up your mind; and it seems that’s what happened to astronomers when they received signals of an exoplanet — a “super-Earth” orbiting the closest single star to our own. But if you’re thinking about an interstellar vacation, hold on a second, from all appearances, it looks like a pretty harsh place to visit.
Related media: Barnard’s Star Super Earth Is Habitable
Hello Out There!
Astronomers discovered this exoplanet around Barnard’s star, a very old and solitary red dwarf that’s roughly 6 light-years away from our Sun. If you happen to be an astro-nerd, you surely know about the three stars of Alpha Centauri — that’s actually the closest star system, roughly less than 4 light-years away from us. Barnard’s Star is our closest solitary star neighbor (just like our Sun). It’s probably twice as old than the Sun, smaller, the least-active red dwarf ever known, and it’s pretty cool than our Sun — both literally and metaphorically speaking, too.
Astronomers believe that’s why this new exoplanet, known as Barnard’s star b, is much closer to it’s home star than the Earth is to the Sun — orbiting less than half the distance as the Earth does, taking 233 Earth days to complete it’s orbit around Barnard’s star. Astronomers also believe that it could be very much cold even considering how close it is to it star. As a matter of fact, it orbits close to what’s known as the “snow line” — just as a mountain’s tree line delineates where it’s too cold for trees to grow — a solar system’s snow line also delineates where its too cold for water to avoid freezing into solid ice.
Barnard’s star b only receives 2 percent of the energy the Earth receives from the Sun, this results in a surface temperature of -123.15 degrees Kelvin (-150 degrees Celsius or -238 degrees Fahrenheit). And it’s estimated that Barnard’s star b is at least 3.2 times as massive as Earth, which makes it what’s known as a “super-Earth.” Red dwarfs like Barnard’s Star are usually home to exoplanets like these — which have a radius up to four times and a mass up to 20 times as large as Earth’s. In other words, they’re exoplanets that are bigger than Earth, but smaller than Uranus or Neptune.
Looking For Our Neighbor
Barnard’s star b’s discovery is what astronomers claim to be never been done before. They’ve searched for exoplanets around Barnard’s star before but all attempts proved unsuccessful. The teams working on the Red Dots and CARMENES exoplanet-hunting projects had to joined forces and combined 20 years of observations from a dozen of high-precision telescopes mounted all around the world — in total, they deployed a whopping 771 measurements to find this exoplanet.
You might wonder, why on Earth did they require all that? This is because they used what’s known as the radial velocity method; which relies heavily on the gravitational tug a planet gives to it’s home star. This tug causes the star to wobble ever so slightly, which is enough to cause redshifts, (or lengthening), in it’s spectra of light that reaches the telescopes here on Earth. Even at said distances, Barnard’s Star b wouldn’t have given that strong of a tug, but the European Southern Observatory (ESO) telescopes known as HARPS was very sensitive enough to detect it.
You’re Welcome Neighbor
“After a very careful analysis, we are 99% confident that the planet is there,” says Ignasi Ribas, an astrophysicist and the team’s led scientist from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia, and the Institute of Space Sciences, (CSIC) Spain, in a statement. “However, we’ll continue to observe this fast-moving star to exclude possible, but improbable, natural variations of the stellar brightness which could masquerade as a planet.”
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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Wed, Feb 20, 2019.