Meet A New World

Astronomers just discovered a new Earth-sized planet in the constellation Vela. It’s named GJ 1132b (not terribly inventive), and thanks to the planet’s size, location, and temperature, the discovery could be a huge milestone in our search for alien life.

The planet is around 16% bigger than Earth and it is 39 light-years away. Researchers are hoping that the distance  (which really isn’t all that far, astronomically speaking), will allow telescopes to determine the chemistry of its atmosphere, the speed of its winds, and even see the color of its sunsets.

“If this planet still has an atmosphere, then we might find other, cooler planets that also have atmospheres and orbit small stars. We can then imagine interrogating the atmospheres for molecules that come from life,” said Zachory Berta-Thompson at the MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, to the Guardian.

So how Earth-like is this world?

While GJ 1132b’s closest star is cooler and fainter than our Sun, the planet’s orbital path is much smaller, which means that the planet is much closer to its star. It completes an orbit every 1.6 days. This close proximity allows its surface temperatures to reach up to 260°C (500°F), making it too hot for the planet to hold liquid water and making it inhospitable to human life. Ultimately, it orbits some 2.2 million km (1.4 million m) from its star, far closer than the closest planet to the Sun, Mercury, which is 57.9 million km (36 million mi) from the Sun.

Of course, the fact that it is 16% bigger than Earth also holds problems, due to the increased gravity. If that’s not enough, the planet has one side permanently in daylight and another in eternal darkness. This is known as “tidal locking,” and it isn’t exactly conducive to things like planet-wide photosynthesis.

But despite these findings, scientists assert that the temperature still makes it possible for the planet to have an atmosphere where other lifeforms could thrive. Researchers behind this major scientific breakthrough have already requested time on the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes in an effort to study the planet further. And an analysis of its atmosphere could allow us to determine an number of other important facts about the composition of the planet and its ability to sustain life.

GJ 1132b Gets a Closer Look

The planet is poised to become a target for future missions, which should include the James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2018 as well as the Giant Magellan Telescope set for 2025.

Notably, the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor, will be more sensitive by a factor of about 100 than all the other telescopes that have come before it. It could help us see some of the first stars forming in the universe. It will open up a world (a universe) of possibilities. We will be able to see farther and deeper than ever before. And it may help us unlock the secrets to planets like GJ 1132b, allowing us to peer into its atmosphere and parse out the heart of the planet.

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