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Scientists found another Earth-like planet, and even more are coming

“You’re right now standing on the threshold of the next sonic boom in exoplanet discoveries.”

by Alex Lubben
Nov 15 2017, 5:40pm

A planet about a third bigger than Earth that could support life as we know it was found just 11 light years away, researchers announced on Wednesday. More than a dozen potentially habitable planets have been identified so far in 2017, and scientists are just getting started.

“This has always been a booming field,” Debra Fischer, an astronomer with the Yale Exoplanet Laboratory, told VICE News. “You’re right now standing on the threshold of the next sonic boom in exoplanet discoveries.”

The discovery of the new planet, dubbed Ross 128 b, tightly orbits a “quiet” red dwarf star, much like Earth’s sun. Its year, however, is 9.9 days long, meaning it’s closer to the star and receives 40 percent more light from it. That also mean it’s probably a lot hotter than Earth.

Ross 128 b’s discovery follows evidence in 2016 of another potentially habitable planet orbiting the closest star to Earth other than the sun, Proxima Centauri, just 4 light years from Earth. And with new technology just on the horizon, these discoveries could become even more frequent.

Today, planets in tight orbits around red dwarf stars are pretty easy to detect with the instruments currently in use — the same ones scientists have used for the last 15 years. What’s changed recently is that we now know that way more stars have planets than previously thought, largely through the discoveries of NASA’s Kepler mission. In 2015, scientists estimated that there could be as many as 1 billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone.

In the next couple of years, new technology will allow us to discover even more “Earths.” For example, European scientists plan to bring “Espresso” — a telescope in the very-scientifically-named category of “Very Large Telescope” — online in late 2017.

And in the U.S., Fischer’s team will bring online another device called EXPRES, an acronym for Extreme Precision Spectrograph, before the end of the year, too.

“The goal of these instruments is to have precision that’s 10 times better than the precision we have today,” Fischer said. “If you look at these discoveries, there were hundreds of observations that were collected to be able to find these planets.”

With the new instruments, “we expect to find the planets faster, with fewer observations,” she added.

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Detecting these stars is one thing though. Figuring out whether they’re habitable is another.

The new planet could be more habitable that the one discovered last year, which orbits a temperamental star, whose constant flares would be a concern. Ross 128 b, however, orbits “the quietest star in its neighborhood,” said Xavier Bonfils, an astronomer at the Institute of Planetary Science and Astrophysics of Grenoble and one of the scientists who discovered it.

But life there could be pretty uncomfortable, at least for humans.

“We don’t know if it has an atmosphere or what it could be made of, but, knowing what we know, our climate models would suggest that this planet would get unbearably hot,” Anthony Del Genio, a co-head of the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science with NASA, told VICE News.

It’s still too early to tell whether Ross 128 b could host life. If it can, life there might look very different from life on Earth. And even if this planet is just a small ball of hot rock, scientists are hopeful that we’ll discover life on another planet with the next few decades.

“For anyone who thinks there isn’t life in our galaxy, it’s getting harder and harder to make that argument. Life might be much more common than we imagine now,” Fischer said.

“I sort of picture this day, ten, twenty, or thirty years from now when we discover life elsewhere. How will humanity deal with that? I don’t know!” she added.

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