Astronomers from Spain’s Institut de Ciències de l’Espai discovered a Super-Earth orbiting a red dwarf star only six light-years away from us. Does this mean that there are chances we will find extraterrestrial life there?

Barnard’s Star is a dim red dwarf, but it is still a star, and it seems that there’s a frozen world orbiting it. According to scientists, if the planet’s existence gets confirmed, it could have significant implications for the chances of extraterrestrial life.

The newly discovered potential planet orbits a dwarf star that is the nearest single star to our sun. Astronomers used to believe that the Alpha Centauri system was nearest to us. However, although it is only four light-years away, and it hosts a planet, this system consists of three stars.

Unlike Alpha Centauri, Barnard’s star is a small red dwarf, older than our Sun, and approximately one-sixth of its size. Without a strong telescope, this star is invisible. That is why it was only discovered in 1916.

Although the news of a potential planet only arrived now, astronomers had presumed its existence ever since the 1960s. These assumptions had inspired numerous fiction authors to imagine and tell tales of wonders that are hidden in that speck of light.

 

The Research

Ever since the Barnard’s Star was first discovered, astronomers showed an immense amount of interest in it. Over the past two decades, NASA’s Kepler telescope searched for planetary transits in that area. One of their goals was to reveal if there are planets around the star or not. However, the most significant data was gathered when the CARMENS instrument in Spain was aimed at Barnard’s Star in 2016. The task of this instrument was to look for barely noticeable wobbles in the star’s movement. These wobbles are the proof of a planet orbiting the star, causing slight gravitational changes.

The scientists from Spain’s Institut de Ciències de l’Espai who reported this finding said that they had analyzed nearly two decades’ worth of data gathered from six different observing instruments. Those data sets suggest that there’s a 99 percent chance of an exoplanet orbiting Barnard’s star.

 

barnard's star distance
This illustration shows the relative distance of Barnard’s Star from our solar system. Credit: IEEC/Science-Wave – Guillem Ramisa.

What Is This New Planet Like?

According to astronomers from Spain’s Institut de Ciencies de l’Espai, who published about this discovery, this potential planet needs about 233 Earth-days to complete its orbit.

It is at least three times as big as our planet, and a lot colder. The fact that this planet has such a long orbit around the Barnard’s Star means that its surface temperature should be approximately -270 degrees Fahrenheit ( -168 degrees Celsius ). Unfortunately, such temperature conditions are too harsh to support life as we know it.

According to Caltech’s Erik Petigura, this planet might look like a larger version of Europa, Callisto, or Titan. Basically, large amounts of rock but with water ice as well. In Petigura’s opinion, if this planet had an atmosphere similar to our planet’s, it would be too cold for liquid water to exist on the surface.

But Is It Really There?

This remains to be seen. Although researchers from Spain have gathered and analyzed a significant amount of data that confirm the planet’s existence, astronomers from all over the world remain skeptical.

Debra Fischer from Yale University says that although there are two decade’s worth of data supporting the claim, that data is inconclusive and messy. However, she calls this publication a “heroic effort” and claims that only next-generation spectrographs can confirm this planet’s existence.

According to Petigura, even though the periodic signal clearly exists and is present in several datasets, it’s still not something that should be called a secure planet detection.

Considering the fact that there aren’t many stars with Earth-like planets in our immediate neighborhood, even if it is too cold for life as we know it, further exploration of this planet is still something that can deliver amazing discoveries.