In the search for life on other planets, two promising leads have just opened: Astronomers have identified two worlds with Earth-like masses, sitting in the habitable zone around a red dwarf star called GJ 1002.
The habitable zone around a star is the sweet spot between a planet that is either too hot or too cold to support life. To be in this region, planets would have to orbit their star at a distance where, in theory, there could be liquid water on their surface.
“GJ 1002 is a red dwarf star, barely one-eighth the mass of the Sun,” says astrophysicist Vera Maria Basinger From the Institute of Astronomy of the Canary Islands (IAC) in Spain. “It’s a fairly cool, dim star. That means its habitation zone is very close to the star.”
While we’re a long way from confirming the existence of alien life or even running water yet, GJ 1002b and GJ 1002c tick all the boxes so far—and, at only 16 light-years from our solar system, they’re close to where we are in the universe, in terms of astrological.
Two instruments for staring into space – espresso (Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectral Observation) f Carmen (Calar Alto’s high-resolution search for M dwarfs with Exoearts with Near Infrared and Echelle Spectrographs) – they had to be used in tandem to identify the star and its planets.
This is because the faint light emitted by GJ 1002 required instruments of great sensitivity and precision to identify its signatures. The research team used 139 spectral observations (deep space radiation measurements) taken between 2017 and 2021 to discover the planets.
Until now, we don’t know much about these celestial bodies, except where they are. GJ 1002b is closest to its star and takes just over 10 days to complete an orbit; GJ 1002c is farther out, with an orbit of just over 20 days.
The good news is that the relative proximity of GJ 1002b and GJ 1002c means it’s easier to make more detailed observations. The next step will be to assess the atmosphere based on the light it reflects or the heat it emits.
“The future ANDES spectrometer of ESO’s ELT telescope, in which IAC is involved, could study the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere of GJ 1002c,” says astrophysicist Junay Gonzalez Hernandez from IAC.
We now have a total of 5,000 exoplanets – planets outside Earth – that have been observed. As telescopes and data analysis algorithms improve, we can identify objects that are smaller and farther from Earth.
Thanks to these improvements in technology, we’ve come close to being able to Measure the chemical signatures of life On these distant planets, even if they are light years away across space.
Nature seems intent on showing that Earth-like planets are very common. says astrophysicist Alejandro Suarez Mascareño from IAC. “With those two, we now know of seven in planetary systems very close to the Sun.”
Research published in Astronomy and astrophysics.
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