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Newly discovered Earth-like planet could support life

Newly discovered Earth-like planet could support life

The planet, known as Ross 128 b, is located a mere 11 light-years from Earth, and will one day become the closest exoplanet to our Sun, dethroning our current immediate neighbor exoplanet - Proxima b. Proxima b is about 4-light-years from Earth.

The closest one, known as Proxima b, may be less hospitable for life.

It is also the closest planet to be discovered orbiting an inactive red dwarf star, which scientists say increases the potential for sustaining life. In fact, most red dwarfs are prone to flaring, which is bad news in the search for alien life outside our Solar System. Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory had picked up the broadband signals, which were described as semi-periodic pulses, and their mysterious nature got a lot of people excited about the prospect that they were a message from aliens.

Radiation is likely much less of an issue for Ross 128b, because its parent star is not an active flarer, said discovery team leader Xavier Bonfils, of the Institute of Planetology and Astrophysics of Grenoble and the University of Grenoble Alpes in France. As astronomers paid more attention, they began realizing that Proxima Centauri, like many red dwarfs, was probably incredibly active in its youth, spewing intense amounts of stellar radiation that would have nearly certainly bludgeoned the small planet. The HARPS instrument, which is mounted aboard a 3.6-meter optical and near-infrared telescope, does not directly observe exoplanets, but instead watches for a minute wobble in the motion of a host star created by the gravitational influence of an orbiting world.

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) says it is the second-closest temperate planet to Earth yet discovered - and it is also moving closer, meaning it will be closer than our existing "closest neighbour" in 79,000 years. Notably, this planet has a mass that is similar to Earth's.

The exoplanet around Ross 128 orbits about 20 times closer to its host star than the Earth to the sun, making a trip around the star every 9.9 days. "Depending on its composition and the reflectivity of its clouds, the exoplanet may be life friendly with liquid water as the Earth, or sterile like Venus".

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Such megascopes should be able to resolve Ross 128b and even search its atmosphere for oxygen, methane, and other possible signs of life, Bonfils said.

Whether life exists beyond Planet Earth is still a mystery - but if aliens really are out there, there's a good chance they'll be found on Ross 128b. "Ross 128 is one of the quietest stars of our sample and, although it is a little further away from us (2.6x), it makes for an excellent alternative target". I know just where we can start. That amount of radiation might be enough to destroy the planet's atmosphere. If so, that could prevent the planet from overheating.

The big question: Is Ross 128 b habitable? "It is common that stars harbor more than a single planet", Astudillo-Defru told Futurism.

They include the ESO's 39-metre Extremely Large Telescope under construction in Chile which is due to begin operating in 2024.

Such conditions could potentially support liquid water, indispensable to life as we know it. "If we are able to identify all three [gases] in the same exoplanet atmosphere, it would be a smoking gun for life on the surface", says Bonfils.

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