- Scientists have discovered a potential trio of Earth-like worlds orbiting a star that is only 11 light years from us.
- The star is a red dwarf, and the planets may be within the star’s habitable zone.
- Future telescope technology could reveal whether these planets have atmospheres and potentially even life.
As far as we know, there is only one “Earth” in the cosmos. Researchers say the odds of any intelligent life on any distant planet are good, even within our own galaxy, but before we find ET we need to find the worlds it lives on. Now, researchers say they have seen a nearby star that appears to harbor not one, not two, but up to three so-called “super Earths.”
The research, which was published in Science, is very promising, but we don’t yet have the technology to see these Earth-like ones in more detail. However, researchers are preparing to determine exactly what these large rocky planets offer.
The most visible red dwarf star on Earth is a red-hot orb known as Gliese 887. The research team led by the University of Göttingen was able to detect a pair of large rocky bodies orbiting this little star, and they say there could be a third. Known as “super-Earths” because they are larger than Earth, but they are believed to be rocky planets like ours, rather than gas giants.
Its distance from its host star is much shorter than that of the Earth-Sun relationship. One of the planets completes an orbit in just 9.3 days, while the other takes 21.8 days to complete a full journey. If these planets were orbiting this close to our own Sun, they would be burned lifeless shells, but because red dwarf stars are much less intense than our Sun, the habitable zone around these stars is very different. These newly discovered planets are believed to be in fact or at least close to the habitable zone, making them very interesting to anyone looking for life outside of Earth.
Via press release:
If Gliese 887 were as active as our Sun, it is likely that a strong stellar wind (flowing material that can erode a planet’s atmosphere) would simply sweep away the planets’ atmospheres. This means that the newly discovered planets can retain their atmospheres, or have atmospheres thicker than Earth, and potentially harbor life, even though GJ887 receives more light than Earth.
The other particularly interesting thing about this discovery is that the star, Gliese 887, is only 11 light years from Earth. It’s still too far away to start thinking about visiting our current technology, but it’s close enough that the next generation of high-powered telescopes, starting with the James Webb Space Telescope if it ever manages to take off, may be able to reveal more about planets than scientists have known about any world outside our solar neighborhood.
We will not be able to learn much more about these planets without deploying new technology, so for the moment, we will only have to wait and ask ourselves.