Canadian researchers have discovered that a previously known exoplanet is several times bigger than Earth and orbits in what’s often called the “Goldilocks zone” – a not-too-hot, not-too-cold region that could host liquid water.
And, if those conditions are just right, the distant world could also host extraterrestrial life.
The so-called super-Earth, a classification of planets named for being about two to four times bigger than our planet, was discovered by a team of astronomers.
Lead researcher Ryan Cloutier, astronomy and astrophysics PhD candidate with the University of Toronto, said it’s too early for the team to know whether or not the planet hosts life.
“The one thing that we do know in addition to how big the planet is and how massive it is now, is how far away it is from the star. And from how far away it is from the star, it gives you an idea of how hot the surface of this planet might be,” Cloutier told CTV News Channel on Tuesday.
“And so we sort of know that, for this planet, it’s got about the right temperature that it could have liquid surface water. But whether or not there is surface water, we’re going to have to do some follow up observations to figure that out for sure, because right now we just don’t know.”
The massive world – officially named K218b – was discovered in 2005. In the new findings, the Canadian team learned that the rocky planet is about 2.5 times bigger than Earth and orbits the sun once every 33 days. They also found that it’s in that ideal zone for hosting water or ice.
Researchers also found a brand new planet, K2-18c, in the same orbit. The second planet is about the same size as its sister, but orbits closer to the star, likely making it too hot to be livable.
At first glance, the new planet appeared as little more than a wobble of light. The Canadian researchers used a spectrograph to stare at the star system, and they noticed it slightly wiggle.
“So if we can detect that wobble, we can infer the presence of a planet, like this super-Earth, and we can actually measure its mass, which is great, because it tells you something about how big the planet is,” Cloutier explained.
The possibility that humankind will reach the sister planets anytime soon is slim. They’re located about 110 light-years away, which means it would take a beam of light 110 years to reach them.
For perspective, the closest star to the Earth (besides the sun) is 4.4 light-years away.
Astronomers are optimistic that, despite the far-flung location, they’ll soon learn more about the atmospheres on the planets. In 2019, the powerful James Webb Space Telescope will allow researchers to peer deeper into outer space.
NASA has dubbed the instrument “the premier observatory of the next decade.”
“Right now, detecting the atmosphere and measuring the atmosphere of an exoplanet is really quite difficult, and we need specialized instruments to do it,” Cloutier explained.
“(The James Webb Space Telescope) is going to vastly expand that parameter space, expand the number of planets that we can actually make these measurements for, and then I’ll be able to tell you something interesting about those exoplanet atmospheres.”