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The Search for Next Earth: Astronomers Finally Find Atmosphere in Earth-Like Planet

Apr 07, 2017 11:53 AM EDT
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Astronomers have spotted evidence of an atmosphere in the exoplanet GJ 1132b, which is around 39 light-years away. It's the first time an atmosphere has been detected around an exoplanet that's roughly the size of Earth, so the discovery is a great step in space exploration.

According to a report from Space.com, rocky planet GJ 1132b is just a bit larger than Earth with 1.4 times its radius and 1.6 times its mass. Initial observations of the exoplanet described it as similar to Venus with a rocky surface and high temperature. The latest discovery of GJ 1132b's atmosphere also suggests the presence of a thick atmosphere.

Previous studies have detected atmospheres elsewhere, but these have always been in planets much larger such as gas giants that are more similar to Jupiter than Earth. With the evidence of an atmosphere, astronomers can analyze whether the planet is suitable -- or is already home -- to Earth-like life.

However, don't start packing your bags just yet. Because the exoplanet's surface temperature is so high at 250 degrees Celsius, the astronomers are unsure about finding life there.

"That's a bit high for life as we know it," study leader John Southworth, an astronomer from Keele University in the United Kingdom, explained in a report from The Guardian. "The planet is significantly hotter and a bit larger than Earth, so one possibility is that it is a 'water world' with an atmosphere of hot steam."

Southworth and his colleagues found evidence of an atmosphere that's rich in water or methane. Further observations are necessary to determine other chemicals present in the exoplanet.

The team used the 2.2 m ESO/MPG telescope in Chile to snap images of the exoplanet's host star GJ 1132. They measured the star system with different wavelengths, discovering that one planet, GJ 1132b, appeared larger in one wavelength, suggesting that it likely has an atmosphere that particular wavelengths can't pierce through.

Find out more about the study in the paper published in the Astronomical Journal.

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