Astronomers Discover Super-Earth Orbiting Barnard’s Star

An artist's rendition of Barnard's star b with the star in the background.                  ESO  M. Kornmesser

In what has been called a breakthrough discovery, a massive exoplanet has been detected orbiting our Sun's closets single star, Barnard's Star, just a mere 6 light-years away.

Bernard's Star b has been categorized as a Super-Earth, meaning its mass is higher than Earth's, but doesn't reach the massive mass of ice giants like Uranus (15 times Earth's mass) and Neptune (17 times Earth's mass).

Barnard's star was discovered in 1916, is six light years away from the Sun and is the second closest star system to the Sun after the Alpha Centauri system. It would be as close to its parent star as Mercury is to our own sun - but because Barnard's Star is a dim red dwarf, surface conditions would be far too chilly for life as we know it.

The star's properties make it a prime target for researchers trying to find new planets, but until now searches have only had disappointing results.

Although Proxima Centauri b has a surface possibly warm enough for liquid water, the chances of finding life there are reduced by hostile X-rays and ultraviolet radiation pouring out of its star.

It is 3.2 times greater than the Earth mass and orbits a red dwarf five times less than the Sun. If there is any form of water on the planet it might be in the form of either ice or gas. This imparts a Doppler shift on its light, shifting it to longer wavelengths (redshifting) when it moves away and toward shorter wavelengths (blueshifting) when it moves toward us.

The center of the image shows Barnard's Star captured in three different exposures.

Although it's orbiting the closest single star to the sun, the small planet is classified as cold, as it has been determined as sitting in the "snow-line" of the star, and so would likely be a frozen world - in fact, the observatory says the planet's temperature is likely to be about minus 150 degrees Celsius.

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It's unlikely that there is life on this probable planet, given the distance from its star. While the star itself is ancient - probably twice the age of our Sun - and relatively inactive, it also has the fastest apparent motion of any star in the night sky.

"I hope we can contribute to more discoveries like this - small planets around nearby stars", Teske said, "to ultimately help answer the question, how unique is Earth?"

First reported in the journal "Nature", the new planet orbits Barnard's star every 233 days.

These wobbles also affect the light coming from the star.

That seemed to be the case when a team of researchers started checking archival data for Barnard's star images.

"After a very careful analysis, we are over 99 percent confident that the planet is there", said Ignasi Ribas from Spain's Institute of Space Studies, in a statement.

Astronomers can use this technique to measure a planet´s velocity and, therefore, mass. "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". Even so, the size of the newly found planet is just on the edge of what current instruments can detect. "The investment to find them is expensive", said Ribas.

"Barnard's star is an infamous object among astronomers and exoplanet scientists, as it was one of the first stars where planets were initially claimed but later proven to be incorrect".

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