Experts Discovered A One-In-A-Million Super-Earth, And It Could Hold The Answer To Life In Space

They’ve been working hard, and the efforts of scientists from New Zealand’s University of Canterbury are about to pay off. With the help of some highly sophisticated methods, this group have been scouring our galaxy in search of something important. Finally, they’ve found it. An entity has been detected – and it almost seems familiar.

The team of researchers involved in this work came together from all over the world in pursuit of answers to vital questions. Of these people, it was Dr. Antonio Herrera Martin who first took note of something strange out there in the galaxy. Further investigation then showed that the astronomer had reached a “one-in-a-million” breakthrough.

The entity that Dr. Herrera Martin noted is situated at the center of the Milky Way. But given our limited perspective here on Earth, this can be a difficult thing to conceptualize. If, however, we consider that this middle part of the galaxy is roughly 25,000 light-years from our planet, we can develop a greater sense of the distances involved.

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If we’re so far away from this entity, then, why has it caused members of the astronomical community to become so excited? Well, that all has to do with the specific nature that defines this object. Though there are some important differences, it seems that this thing closely resembles the Earth.

Finding planets out there in the universe that bear similarities to our own one is important for one clear reason. Though life could potentially thrive in conditions totally unlike those we see on Earth, we can’t say for sure. It stands to reason, then, that planets resembling Earth might just be our best bet to discover alien life.

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There’s an idea within the field of astrobiology known as the Goldilocks Principle. In essence, this refers to the position of a planet in relation to the star it orbits around. If this planet is at a distance that allows for temperatures conducive to the presence of water in its liquid form, then we can say that the planet is positioned within the so-called Goldilocks Zone. In other words, it’s in a location in which the conditions for life are present.

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In our own Solar System, the Goldilocks Zone was once thought to stretch from the trajectory that Venus follows as it orbits our Sun to the course pursued by Mars. Earth’s path, of course, is in between those of Venus and Mars. As such, Earth is undoubtedly in the Goldilocks Zone, hence the presence of extensive oceans and rivers here.

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Venus, however, doesn’t actually have liquid water on its surface. Nonetheless, experts believe that it might have done a long, long time ago. If we look back billions of years into the past, then it’s possible that the planet had an ocean, albeit not a particularly deep one. But over time Venus experienced a rise in gases such as carbon dioxide that ultimately warmed the surface to incredibly high temperatures.

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These scorching conditions would have caused any water on Venus’ surface to vaporize and take the form of a gas. In contrast, conditions on Earth are such that water can remain in its liquid state on the surface. Furthermore, Venus has a denser atmosphere, meaning the air pressure there is more than 90 times as intense as on our own planet.

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Mars, too, is believed to have once had liquid water on its exterior. However, the planet was exposed to solar winds, which ultimately managed to weaken its atmosphere. As a result, the air pressure became so feeble that water couldn’t remain there in its liquid state for any significant length of time.

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So, we can say that Venus, Earth and Mars are all within the Goldilocks Zone. Hence, they’ve all, at some stage, had liquid water on their surfaces. More recent research, however, has suggested that water in liquid form can also be found in places not in this zone. For example, it’s thought that Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus might be capable of holding water in its liquid state.

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However, the liquid water on the moons of Europa and Enceladus might be hidden from view by a layer of ice. You see, as the two natural satellites orbit around their respective planets, their interiors are warmed up in the process. This is an occurrence that scientists call as tidal heating.

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Given the conditions present on Europa and Enceladus, experts believe that the two moons might be capable of harboring living organisms. As a result, the previous definition of our Solar System’s Goldilocks Zone can be said to be outdated. Its boundaries now must include places where liquid water may be found a little beneath the surface.

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Moreover, beyond our own Solar System, there are plenty of places that look like potential hubs of life. According to recent studies, several thousand potentially habitable planets outside of our own celestial neighborhood have already been identified. A number of these, in fact, share characteristics with Earth. As such, they’re undoubtedly worth investigating.

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And NASA is actively seeking out such planets in our galaxy. The agency’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) was specifically created to look for worlds like ours. According to NASA, TESS is set to study hundreds of thousands of stars in the hope of identifying any Earth-like planets out there in the Milky Way.

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As a result of TESS, a directory of potentially life-bearing planets in the galaxy has been pieced together. The so-called TESS Habitable Zone Star Catalog has even appeared in Astrophysical Journal Letters. The main figure behind this work is Lisa Kaltenegger, an astronomer who’s on the TESS scientific team and who’s also the head of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University.

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According to the catalog, there are more than 1,800 stars that TESS should be able to investigate in search of orbiting planets that are a little bigger than our own. These worlds apparently experience levels of radiation emanating from their stars comparable to the levels that Earth derives from our Sun. Furthermore, a little over 400 stars identified in the catalog should have planets the same size as Earth that TESS ought to be capable of studying.

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Head author of the catalog Kaltenegger explained her work in a statement. “Life could exist on all sorts of worlds, but the kind we know can support life is our own,” she said. “So, it makes sense to first look for Earth-like planets. This catalog is important for TESS because anyone working with the data wants to know around which stars we can find the closest Earth-analogs.”

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The specific stars contained within the catalog all adhere to certain criteria. Namely, they’re all bright and considered to be quite cool for what they are. The defining conditions range from 2,700 °K to 5,000 °K, where “°K” refers to the Kelvin measurement of temperature. Some of these stars are a mere six light-years from our home planet.

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“We don’t know how many planets TESS will find around the hundreds of stars in our catalog or whether they will be habitable,” Kaltenegger added. “But the odds are in our favor. Some studies indicate that there are many rocky planets in the habitable zone of cool stars, like the ones in our catalog. We’re excited to see what worlds we’ll find.”

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Apparently, almost 140 of the stars noted within the catalog will be able to be viewed by the James Webb Space Telescope. This is currently being constructed by NASA, with the aim of it being propelled into space in 2021. The telescope will allow astronomers to investigate planets and their atmospheres for indications of living organisms.

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So, the work of TESS could ultimately prove to be significant in mankind’s search for life beyond our planet. Keivan Stassun, a scientist involved with the project, has also spoken about the work. He stated, “This is a remarkable time in human history and a huge leap for our understanding of our place in the universe.”

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The discoveries that are set to be made thanks to TESS could clearly be very important. Moreover, the project isn’t the only means of tracking down planets situated beyond our Solar System. In fact, a group of scientists from New Zealand have employed another technique entirely in their efforts to do this.

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Firstly, it must be stated that this group of experts didn’t actually note a new world by looking at the planet itself. Rather, they studied the manner in which light was affected around it. The phenomenon observed is termed “gravitational microlensing.”

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Gravitational microlensing occurs because huge entities bend the area that surrounds them. As a result, the effect can be seen when certain things align. Namely, if a telescope, the large entity in space and a specific focal point are positioned in a particular way, then light given off by the focal point will be bent by the entity.

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This microlensing phenomenon, however, is actually very unusual. It’s estimated that for every million stars in the galaxy, only one will experience the effect. And on top of that, the chances of actually noting it in action are really unlikely. All in all, then, the work by the New Zealand scientists was very special indeed.

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Dr. Antonio Herrera Martin, who was a leading figure in this study, has elaborated on the work in a statement. “The combined gravity of the planet and its host star caused the light from a more distant background star to be magnified in a particular way,” he explained. “We used telescopes distributed around the world to measure the light-bending effect.”

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This effect was noted by Dr. Herrera Martin and his colleagues back in 2018. This was made possible by of a number of telescopes littered around the world. These extremely specialized instruments were looking up at the sky from Chile, South Africa and Australia, to be precise.

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By paying careful attention to the specifics of a given microlensing effect, researchers can work out what entities were responsible for making it happen. Typically, it’s a star that’s behind the phenomenon. In this case, however, the scientists realized that rather than being caused by a single star, the lens effect was the result of a system of objects.

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In a statement, one of the study’s authors explained more. According to Associate Professor Michael Albrow, “These experiments detect around 3,000 microlensing events each year, the majority of which are due to lensing by single stars. Dr. Herrera Martin first noticed that there was an unusual shape to the light output from this event, and undertook months of computational analysis that resulted in the conclusion that this event was due to a star with a low-mass planet.”

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The scientists have calculated that the star at the heart of this study has a mass of only about 10 percent of our Sun. Its orbiting planet, however, is several times bigger than the Earth. As such, we can call it a “super-Earth.” All this is noteworthy, as very few examples of such systems have been discovered.

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There are many ways of referring to the star that this planet orbits. We can call it a “brown dwarf,” a “dim dwarf star,” or even a “failed star.” The planet orbits around this star in a position equivalent to a point between Earth and Venus in our Solar System. It takes more than 600 of our Earth days for this planet to travel around its star.

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Dr. Herrera Martin has elaborated on how unique this discovery really is. He said, “To have an idea of the rarity of the detection, the time it took to observe the magnification due to the host star was approximately five days, while the planet was detected only during a small five-hour distortion. After confirming this was indeed caused by another ‘body’ different from the star, and not an instrumental error, we proceeded to obtain the characteristics of the star-planet system.”

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We can only speculate as to what planets like this one really look like. You see, we haven’t yet taken any photographs of these so-called “exoplanets.” This term simply relates to a planet located beyond our Solar System. So for the time being, we’ll have to make do with simulations of how they might appear.

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Despite the fact that the newly discovered planet is referred to as a super-Earth, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll physically resemble our planet. According to NASA’s own definition of such worlds, they might be many times larger than our blue planet. And on top of that, they could be formed from of ice or gas, as well as water.

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This latest discovery isn’t the only super-Earth to be noted in recent years, however. Indeed, NASA has come across a planet called Kepler 62f. Located around 500 lightyears from the Earth, this place might be of a similar size and perhaps even has seasons and weather conditions like our own.

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Another planet is also thought to experience conditions that might allow for liquid water on its surface. This is Kepler 186f, which is positioned within the Goldilocks Zone of its star. And based on the planet’s dimensions, it’s been suggested that it might even have a rocky terrain much like Earth.

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Of course, we can’t yet be certain whether or not these two planets even have liquid water, much less if they’re able to sustain living organisms. Nonetheless, they’re exciting prospects and will no doubt be subject to further scrutiny as the years go by. In fact, the James Webb Telescope currently in development may help with this endeavor.

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As for the super-Earth discovered by the New Zealand researchers, we should keep our expectations in check. As Abrow told USA Today, “Although it’s not too much bigger than Earth, and orbiting its star at a similar distance, this planet would be very cold because its star is smaller than the Sun and emits much less light.”

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“Water could not exist in a liquid state. And the likelihood of life would be very low,” Abrow continued. “Only a very few planets have been detected that may have suitable conditions for life.” So, while the discovery is exciting, there’s still work to do in our search for alien life.

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