Exoplanet could potentially host life, study reports

A new method for determining a planet's chemical makeup reveals that a distant rocky world has the potential to host life.
By Joseph Scalise | Nov 30, 2018
A newly discovered exoplanet known as Ross 128 b has the necessary makeup to support life, according to a recent study published inThe Astrophysical Journal Letters.

A team of international astronomers at Brazil's Observatrio Nacional first spotted the rocky world last year. It sits 11 light years from Earth and orbits around a star known as Ross 128.

Though the planet is intriguing, it was the star that was at the center of the study.

Using the APOGEE spectrograph, researchers uncovered the body's near-infrared light to determine its specific chemical makeup. That then revealed new information about Ross 128 b.

Ross 128 is a red dwarf. Though most stars in the galaxy -- around 70 percent -- classify as red dwarfs, they still of interest to astronomers because they are cooler than the sun and most of them have planets.

Those lower temperatures are important because their habitable Goldilocks zone -- the temperate region around a host star where a planet needs to exist in order to theoretically support life -- is a lot closer than the distance between the Earth and the sun.

Unfortunately, most red dwarfs are quite active. They belch out dangerous flares that are so hot they would burn any life on nearby planets.

In contrast, Ross 128 has minimal flare activity, suggesting its a good place to look for life.

Though the team initially wanted to study Ross 128 b, it orbits the star at such an angle that makes it impossible to study directly. As a result, analyzing the star is the next best choice.

"The ability of APOGEE to measure near-infrared light, where Ross 128 is brightest, was key for this study," said study co-author Johanna Teske, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science, in a statement."It allowed us to address some fundamental questions about Ross 128b's 'Earth-like-ness.'"

Researchers used the APOGEE spectrograph to analyze the star's near infrared spectrum and determine how much carbon, oxygen, magnesium, aluminum, potassium, calcium, titanium, and iron it contains. That then allowed them to understand its composition.

For instance, the analysis revealed that Ross 128 b is likely a rocky planet that is larger than Earth and sits in the Goldilocks zone.

There are still many unanswered questions about the world, including what its magnetic field is like, if it has an atmosphere, and what weather conditions are hospitable for life.

Even so, this study shows the validity of using a star to study planets that cannot directly be observed and suggests the method could one day uncover information about other far-off exoplanets.

"It's exciting what we can learn about another planet by determining what the light from its host star tells us about the system's chemistry,"said lead author Diego Sauto, a researcher at the Observatorio Nacional in Brazil, according toScience Alert.

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