For the first time ever, astronomers have detected an atmosphere engulfing a low-mass super-Earth located around 39 light-years away from Earth.
The planet—dubbed GJ 1132b—is located around thirty-nine light years from our planet and experts made the groundbreaking discovery at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) using the 2.2-meter (7.2 foot) ESO/MPG telescope in Chile.
“It’s a great proof of concept that we can observe atmospheres on these small, rocky planets even from the ground,” said Laura Schaefer, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University who was not involved in the paper. “That’s really exciting and that means that we’ll be able to do it with more planets down the line as we find more planets of this size.”
As noted by Phys.org, “while it’s not the detection of life on another planet, it’s an important step in the right direction: the detection of an atmosphere around the super-Earth GJ 1132b marks the first time an atmosphere has been detected around a planet with a mass and radius close to Earth’s mass and radius (1.6 Earth masses, 1.4 Earth radii).”
The planet—which was discovered for the first time in 2015 orbits a small, dim, red dwarf about one-quarter of our sun’s radius.
At the time of the discovery, scientists considered the planet uninhabitable as they calculated that the surface temperature is around 620 degrees celsius.
Using the ESO/MPG telescope in Chile, astronomers observed a slight decrease in brightness as they imaged the star as it passed in front of its sun, which allowed scientists do deduce an atmosphere was absorbing part of the light, possibly containing both water and methane.
Furthermore, when astronomers observed GJ 1132b it appeared to be larger in one of the infrared wavelength bands than in others, which means that it has an atmosphere which is transparent to some wavelengths but visible to others.
“This suggests the presence of an atmosphere that is opaque to this specific infrared light (making the planet appear larger), but transparent at all the others,” a statement from the MPIA read.
According to scientists, GJ 1132b is approximately 1.4 times the size and 1.6 times the mass of our planet. GJ 1132b orbits its sun in just 1.6 days.
Experts believe that—given our current understanding of exoplanets—GJ 1132b is unlikely to be habitable, mostly because it is located too close to its sun, which means that there are small chances of liquid water existing on its surface.
However, this doesn’t make the planet uninteresting. In fact, experts were surprised as they observed what seemed to be an atmosphere around it. This is because red dwarfs—also known as M Dwarfs—are prone to bursts of solar activity that tends to blast away atmospheres of planets orbiting it.
However, for some reason, the atmosphere around GJ 1132b seems to have survived for billions of years, which indicates that such alien worlds may not be so barren and lifeless after all.
Featured image: An artist’s impression. Credit: Max Planck Society