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On February 2, a team of astronomers detected an exoplanet (short for extrasolar planet) located in the habitable zone, a slim area in which a planet must be located, so that it is not too close nor too far away from the star it orbits, thus having a surface temperature that can sustain liquid. This newly discovered exoplanet may be able to sustain water and even life.
Using data from the European Southern Observatory, the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, and the Carnegie Planet Finder Spectograph at the Magellan II Telescope in Chile, the astronomers – from the University of California in Santa Cruz and the private research organization Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC – found the exoplanet through discerning the gravitational tug it and its parent star impose on each other. The system lies 22 light-years away in the constellation Scorpius.
“This is basically our next-door neighbor,” Steven Vogt tells Space.com. Vogt, one of the members of the team, is an astronomer at the University of California. “It’s very nearby. There are only about 100 stars closer to us than this one.”
“We’ve been explicitly focusing on very nearby stars,” he adds, “because with today’s technology, we could send a robotic probe out there, and within a few hundred years, it could be sending back picture postcards.”
The star, dubbed GJ 667C, is a part of a triple star system. Unlike its companion stars, which are orange K dwarfs, GJ 667C is an M-class dwarf: it is much smaller and less luminous than the Sun and emits infrared light, which is less intense in light and temperature. GJ 667C’s composition is very different from that of the Sun’s, lacking elements heavier than hydrogen and helium such as carbon, iron, and silicon that are needed to form planets.
“We shouldn’t have really expected this star to be a likely case for harboring planets,” says Vogt.
The exoplanet, named GJ 667Cc, is a super-Earth, roughly 4.5 times the size of the Earth. Because of the absence of heavy elements, much of GJ 667Cc’s mass comes from ice and gas. The orbital period of GJ 667Cc measures 28 days, which would seem dauntingly close to us compared to the Earth’s orbital period.
A planet that takes the same amount of time to orbit the Sun (for instance) would roast; however, GJ 667C’s weak temperature and light, and the fact that GJ 667Cc receives 10 percent of the light the Earth receives from the Sun, counterbalance the closeness of the exoplanet, creating a comfortable region in which to dwell.
Furthermore, GJ 667Cc is in the right spot to absorb the same amount of energy that the Earth absorbs from the Sun to have an atmosphere. In the Carnegie Institution for Science press release, Guillem Anglada-Escudé – co-leader of the study and lead writer of the team’s paper that will soon be published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters – states, “This planet is the new best candidate to support liquid water and, perhaps, life as we know it.”
GJ 667Cc has a sibling, GJ 667Cb, which is around the size of the Earth. Unlike GJ 667Cc, GJ 667Cb has a much smaller orbital period. Hence, it is too close and has too high a temperature to sustain liquid.
Only one other exoplanet located in the habitable zone has been discovered before, Kepler-22b, which was detected by the NASA spacecraft Kepler on December 5, 2011. Astronomers believe that Kepler-22b, which is 2.4 times the Earth’s size, may also maintain water and life.
Image Courtesy of http://www.esa.int