Newly discovered super-Earths could ‘potentially harbor life’

This illustration shows what the planets of Gliese 887 might look like.

Mark Garlick

We have a new discovery in search to determine if we are alone in the universe. A team of astronomers involved in the Red Dots campaign, which searches for planets, has found two especially interesting super-Earths around the relatively close star Gliese 887.

Super-Earths are planets with a mass greater than Earth, but much less than that of the ice giants Uranus and Neptune. Exoplanets (planets located outside of our solar system) are called Gliese 887b and Gliese 887c. They have very short orbits around their host star, which is 11 light-years away from us.

Astronomer Sandra Jeffers of the University of Gottingen in Germany is the lead author of a study on exoplanets published in the journal Science on Thursday.

In addition to being cosmically close, these super-Earths are exciting for several reasons. For starters, they are close to your star’s habitable zone, an area where liquid water might exist. Then they could be rocky planets, like Earth and Mars.

What’s even better is that the Gliese 887 is pretty quiet for a red dwarf star. Although dimmer than our own sun, red dwarfs are famous for erupting energy eruptions that can destroy a planet’s atmosphere. Gliese 887 is not very active. “This means that newly discovered planets can retain their atmospheres, or have atmospheres thicker than Earth, and potentially harbor life,” Gottingen University said in a statement Thursday.

There are a lot of maybes here, but these exoplanets have a lot of potential. Research suggests they might be good targets for NASA’s Delayed Next Generation James Webb Space Telescope once launched the telescope can tell us whether the Gliese 887 planets do have atmospheres.

“These planets will provide the best possibilities for more detailed study, including searching for life outside our solar system,” said Jeffers. The only disappointing news is that 11 light years are still too far for us to visit.