'Super-Earth' discovered orbiting Sun's nearest star

Barnard's Planet

The dimness of Barnard's Star also explains the difficulty and the slight uncertainty surrounding the detection.

Professor Carole Haswell, head of astronomy at the Open University and a member of the worldwide team that announced the discovery in the journal Nature, said: "While the starlight from Barnard's Star is too feeble for Barnard's Star b to have liquid water on its surface, Barnard's Star b probably has a similar temperature to Jupiter's moon Europa".

Graphic representation of the relative distances to the nearest stars from the Sun.

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

But the new discovery is exciting for other reasons.

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.

These questions could be answered by a future instrument that could take direct images of close-up planets, such as NASA's Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) telescope, which is slated to launch in the 2020s.

"It´s important because it´s really our nextdoor neighbour and we like to meet our neighbours in general", Ignasi Ribas, from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and Spain´s Institute of Space Sciences, told AFP.

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

The new detection was made by a team of scientists working on an astronomy collaboration called Red Dots. The researchers believe that it is an icy desert with no liquid water, a hostile environment where the average surface temperature is around minus-274 degrees Fahrenheit.

Astronomers studied Barnard´s Star, a red dwarf just six light years away - practically in our back garden, galactically speaking - and noticed the presence of a "frozen, dimly lit world" at least 3.2 times heavier than Earth.

And the researchers also found something else in the data: faint evidence of another planet, which would be known as Barnard's Star c.

The discovery is reported in the journal Nature.

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To come to this conclusion he used a technique called astrometry that measures the movement of a single star across the celestial sphere.

"There´s not so many stars in our immediate neighbourhood".

In the 1930s, Dutch-American astronomer Peter van de Kamp began a quest to study Barnard's star that lasted for most of his 93 years. The exoplanet is orbiting Barnard's star, the closest solitary star to our sun. One of those stars, Proxima Centauri, is orbited by a small planet, but the star's tendency to spew flares of deadly radiation means its planet is unlikely to be habitable.

"A light source that comes towards us would have its wavelength slightly blue shifted, while a light source that moves away from us has its wavelength slightly red shifted", Ribas said.

The magnitude of the wobble reveals the minimum mass of the planet that is responsible for the motion. "It was a community effort", Ribas says.

Astronomers have discovered a planet around one of the closest stars to our Sun. "This is going to be one of the best candidates", says astronomer Nikku Madhusudhan of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who was not part of the discovery team.

Dr. Anglada-Escudé and co-authors used the radial velocity method during the observations that led to the discovery of Barnard's star b. A clear signal at a period of 233 days arose again and again.

"He worked hard at improving the only technique at that time that had a prayer of finding planets, and spent decades collecting the data", Butler said.

"Difficult detections such as this one warrant confirmation by independent methods and research groups", he said in an essay accompanying the new study.

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

Even if the other potential planets turn out to be busts, the one that does appear to be there would be close enough to us, and far enough from Barnard's star, that we could image it directly using hardware that should come online within the next decade.

However, he thinks that the presence of the planet is now the best interpretation of the data the team has collected so far.

"It could be that a different explanation for the observational evidence we have will be found in the future", he said.

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