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Nearby exoplanet trio new target in search for life

Despite being cool, star at system’s center could create habitable conditions

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3:10pm, May 2, 2016
Dim red star illustration

CLOSE TO HOME A nearby dim red star hosts three possibly rocky worlds, similar to those illustrated here, that are close enough to Earth to search for signs of life.

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Three Earth-sized planets orbiting a star practically next-door might be a good place to hunt for alien life — or at least check out some worlds that are different from anything in our solar system.

The planets orbit a dim, cool star just 39 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius. Each is outside or possibly on the edge of the star’s habitable zone — where average temperatures are just right for liquid water. But there could be niche locales on these worlds where alien life might thrive, Michaël Gillon, an astrophysicist at University of Liège in Belgium, and colleagues report online May 2 in Nature.

A year on the two inner planets lasts just a couple of days. Data on the third world are sparse; it could take anywhere between 4.5 and 72.8 days to trek around its sun. The star, designated 2MASS J23062928−0502285, is roughly the size of Jupiter — about one-tenth as wide as our sun — and about 3,200 degrees Celsius cooler than the sun. Such runts make up about 15 percent of the stars in the galaxy, though astronomers had not found planets around one before. All three planets were discovered as periodic dips in starlight in late 2015 using TRAPPIST, a telescope at La Silla Observatory in Chile.

If anything does crawl or grow on these worlds, it bathes in mostly infrared light. The innermost planets receive several times as much energy from their star as Earth does from our sun, which technically puts them outside the star’s habitable zone (SN: 4/30/16, p. 36). But the planets are huddled up so close to the star that gravity might keep them from spinning, creating a temperate zone along the line where day turns to night, the researchers suggest.

Faint red stars such as this one are the best place to look for warm rocky planets, says Nicolas Cowan, an astronomer at McGill University in Montreal. Planets, even small ones, are easier to see around these dim bulbs rather than sunlike stars. NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope has already shown that planets exist around similar stars, but those are too far away to investigate further. “This [study] finds a nearby example,” says Cowan.

Being nearby is important for studying the atmospheres of such worlds, or learning whether they have atmospheres at all. They may not. Red dwarf stars take a long time to form; planets arise while their sun is still a puffy, temperamental ball of contracting gas. “That might bake off all the water and the atmosphere,” Cowan says. Astronomers won’t know, though, until they point some big telescopes toward these worlds.

The Hubble Space Telescope might be able to get a crude look. But NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018, could gaze at these planets and measure how much starlight is being absorbed by molecules in their atmospheres. If there is an atmosphere, James Webb could look for such gases as oxygen and methane (SN: 4/30/16, p. 32). On Earth, at least, those gases are produced by plants and microbes.

Whether or not life has found a home on these worlds, all offer a peek at unfamiliar environments. The two planets closest to the star, for example, are bombarded with more energy than Venus, notes Lisa Kaltenegger, an astronomer at Cornell University. “How would Venus evolve if you heat it up even more?” she asks. “We don't have such planets in our own solar system, so it is really interesting to find out what such planets can be like.”

Citations

M. Gillon et al. Temperate Earth-sized planets transiting a nearby ultracool dwarf star. Nature. Published online May 2, 2016. doi: 10.1038/nature17448. 

Further Reading

T.H. Saey. Will we know extraterrestrial life when we see it? Science News. Vol. 189, April 30, 2016, p. 28.

C. Crockett. New telescopes will search for signs of life on distant planets. Science News. Vol. 189, April 30, 2016, p. 32.

T. Sumner. How alien can a planet be and still support life? Science News. Vol. 189, April 30, 2016, p. 36.

C. Crockett. Rocky planets around cool stars may have Earthlike climates. Science News. Vol. 187 No. 3, February 7, 2015, p. 7.

M.J. Payne and G. Lodato. The potential for Earth-mass planet formation around brown dwarfs. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Vol. 381, November 2007, p. 1597. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2966.2007.12362.x.

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