Cold ‘super-Earth’ exoplanet discovered orbiting nearby star

Barnard's Planet

Spotting planets at a huge distance is still important, and every new planet researchers are able to detect adds to our knowledge of the universe and nature itself, but majority are so distant that we'll likely never actually visit them.

Finding out more about Barnard's star b will likely require telescopes able to detect light from the planet itself.

Barnard's Star has always been "the great white whale" of exoplanet hunting, said Carnegie astronomer Paul Butler, a co-author on the Nature paper.

We've observed an alien world orbiting Barnard's Star, a tiny red dwarf that's only six light-years away, making it the second-closest known exoplanet beyond our solar system.

Barnard's Star is the fourth-closest star to our sun.

The planet actually orbits much closer to Barnard's star than Earth does to the sun, but because the red dwarf puts out much less energy than our star, conditions are likely cold and shadowy on the surface at all times. The detailed follow-up that spotted it also hints at the possibility of a separate, more distant planet, and both could help inform our models of planet formation.

Every time GAIA observes Barnard's Star, it measures its location with a precision far greater than any previous observatory could manage. These observations have included exoplanet searches, but nothing about the system stood out.

Ribas and his team used 800 different observations of Barnard's Star to drive down the uncertainty that the planet existed. Their analysis suggested there might be a signal of something orbiting with a 230 day period, but the data suffered from what the researchers term "very poor sampling". However, if astronomers record observations of this starlight over many years, they may notice slight periodic frequency shifts.

This discovery showcases the power of the radial velocity technique for detecting small planets.

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"We think that this is what we call a Super-Earth - that would be possibly a mostly rocky planet with a massive atmosphere". These changes caused the apparent position of the Barnard's Star to shift back and forth relative to the bluer background stars.

"The chances of finding new ones is quite high", he said.

Because Barnard's star is so close, the separation between the planet and star in the sky will be relatively large.

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". If the orbit has a different orientation, then the planet will be heavier. It takes the planet 233 days to complete a single orbit around its cool red sun.

That location is interesting from a planetary science perspective. It's probably very rich in volatiles like water, hydrogen, carbon dioxide - things like this.

In other words, the most massive planet in a given system should form just beyond the ice line.

Might that have happened at Barnard's star? But that method detects only the small fraction of planets that cross their star's face when viewed from Earth. When the researchers did that here, a second, far weaker signal at 6,600 days appeared.

Two years ago this data was correlated with readings from the European Southern Observatory's UVES and HARPS spectrometers, the Automated Planet Finder (APF) telescope at the University of California's Lick Observatory, the Carnegie Institution for Science's Planet Finder Spectrograph (PFS) on the Magellan II Telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, and CARMENES, a new planet-hunter spectrograph at Calar Alto Observatory in Spain.


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