Chilly 'super-Earth' may orbit Sun’s nearest single star neighbour

Barnard's Star

An artist’s impression of the newly discovered planet’s surface

Based on his observations, van de Kamp believed one of the planets completed a full orbit around the dim star in 12 years, while the other completed its orbit in 20 years. Data from a worldwide array of telescopes, including Keck Observatory in Hawaii, have revealed this frozen, dimly-lit world.

The potential discovery of a planet orbiting Barnard's Star - the second closest stellar system to the Sun - was announced by researchers today in Nature.

At almost six light-years away Barnard's star is the next closest star to the Sun after the Alpha Centauri triple system. Knowing that we have one of these unusual exoplanets so nearby could allow us to get to know this planetary species a little better.

Barnard's Star b is thought to be quite cold. Astronomers have discovered a frozen super-Earth in the second closest star system to Earth that might resemble the famous snowy world from the Star Wars universe. One of the main architects of exoplanet research, the astronomer Peter van de Kamp, proposed more than 50 years ago that this star could host a planet. Astronomers found the so-called super Earth orbiting Barnard's star, the fourth closest star to the sun.

The planet is about the same orbital distance from its star as Mercury is from our sun, making a full pass around the star every 233 days. Lacking atmosphere, its temperature is likely to be about minus 170 degrees Celsius, which makes it unlikely that the planet can sustain liquid water on the surface. 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.

Red dwarfs are far smaller and cooler than our own star, and thus emit far less heat.

This image shows the surroundings of Barnard's Star. The research pushed the limits of the radial velocity detection technique, which becomes more hard the farther a planet is from its star.

Barnard's Star b is estimated to have a mass around three times that of Earth.

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'We knew we would have to be patient. "Hopefully we got it right this time".

"We combined archival data from other teams with new, overlapping, measurements of Barnard's star from different facilities".

An illustration of the relative distances to the nearest stars from our sun.

How far? It's in the next star system past Alpha Centauri 30 trillion miles from Earth.

This image shows an artist's impression of the exoplanet viewed from space.

At that time, however, the signal was still too weak for the astronomers to claim it as significant and publish their findings. In each case, the additional data made the roughly 230-day signal grow stronger and more significant.

The team worked with the European Southern Observatory using astronomical instruments so accurate they can detect changes in a star´s velocity as small as 3.5 kilometres (2.2 miles) per hour - a gentle walking pace. 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. The planet is named after the star it orbits.

Scientists took two decades to confirm the existence of Barnard's Star b. Super-Earths are the most common type of planet to form around low-mass stars such as Barnard's Star, lending credibility to this newly discovered planetary candidate. "The thing is that the candidate planet we found is so small and so far from its host star that its effect on the star is really, really tiny".

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