'Earth-like' planet found orbiting Earth’s neighbouring star

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Less than six light-years away from our Sun, the potential planet orbits Barnard's Star, a well-studied low-mass red dwarf star in the Ophiuchus constellation.

The planet, known as Barnard's star b, is probably dimly lit by its star and slightly colder than Saturn.

This is because Barnard's star, named after the American astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard, is in the class of M dwarf stars, cooler and less massive than our sun.

An worldwide team led by researchers from the Carnegie Institution for Science announced today that they've detected an exoplanet orbiting Barnard's star, the closest single star to Earth at just six light-years away.

Martin Kurster an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy who worked on the new study, said it is possible that the detection of the new planet could one day be disproved.

In mankind´s bid to map the planets in the night sky, most historic research has focused on brighter, newer stars, which produce more light and increase the chances of scientists noticing anything orbiting them. At this distance, the planet only receives about two percent of the energy that the Sun gives to Earth, putting its surface temperature at a frigid -340 degrees Fahrenheit (-170 degrees Celsius).

However, if the planet has a substantial atmosphere the temperature could be higher and conditions potentially more hospitable.

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The researchers used the radial velocity method during the observations that led to the discovery of Barnard's star b. This is how we find exoplanets actually: As they orbit their host stars, their gravity causes their stars to wobble, pulling them toward and away from the telescope on Earth, creating a frequency shift that corresponds to the exoplanet's mass orbital period. When the planet moves closer to the star, the starlight is shifted toward shorter, blue wavelengths (called blueshift) and when the planet moves farther away from the star, the starlight shifts toward longer, red wavelengths (called redshift).

There are still many mysteries surrounding this newly discovered exoplanet.

The fastest spacecraft humans have invented is the Parker Solar Probe, launched this year, that can travel as fast as 430,000 miles per hour.

The planet's mass is thought to be more than three times that of our own, placing it in a category of world know as "super-Earths".

Astronomers stitched data from seven instruments including the Planet Finding Spectrograph on Magellan II telescope at Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington D.C., Xinhua reported.

This is the first time that this approach to planet hunting has been used to find a super-Earth planet in such a wide orbit, with Barnard's Star b orbiting about 0.4 astronomical units from the star.

While the planet doesn't seem exactly hospitable, future advancement may allow us to colonize it in the future and make use of the large ice reserves that can be found on the planet. "But in the U.S., they are also developing WFirst - a small telescope that's also used for cosmology", said Dr Anglada Escudé. If the existence of Barnard's Star b is confirmed, it may indicate there are other, smaller worlds orbiting this ancient star. More recently, most exoplanets have been detected using a different technique known as the transit method. "This is the result of a large collaboration organized in the context of the Red Dots project, which is why it has contributions from teams all over the world including semi-professional astronomers coordinated by the American Association of Variable Star Observers".

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