Published: Thu, December 07, 2017
Science | By Hubert Green

Scientists Say Newly-Discovered 'Super Earth' Could Be Hosting Alien Life

Scientists Say Newly-Discovered 'Super Earth' Could Be Hosting Alien Life

In addition to two regular signals - one every 39 days from the star's rotation and the other every 33 days from the planet's orbit - the researchers found a third signal occurring every nine days.

Scientists combed the skies with the European Southern Observatory's planet-hunting HARPS device in Chile. On top of this, the team also discovered that this planet-K2-18b-has another, similar world hiding behind it. The planet orbits within its star's habitable zone, which means it could hold liquid water on its surface - a key factor needed to sustain alien life. First discovered back in 2015, the planet is thought to lie within its star's habitable zone, and if it does indeed have a rocky core as scientists believe, it may well have liquid water on its surface.

Using the fiber-optic HARPS technology, the astronomers watched the changing position and speed of stars. The instrument makes it possible to detect very small planets orbiting those stars. "Once all the boxes were checked it sunk in that, wow, this actually is a planet", said Ryan Cloutier, who had the target of finding at least one new exoplanet during the course of his Ph.D.

Using sophisticated machine-learning techniques, the team figured out the planet could well be an Earth-like planet made mostly of rock and with a gaseous atmosphere. They named it K2-18c.

In an unexpected surprise, while researching the behavior of K2-18b, astronomers noticed something that they thought might have been signal noise but eventually determined was an entirely new planet orbiting K2-18 much closer than K2-18b does. Sitting too close to its star, meaning the surface is probably too hot to support life. According to study authors, the discovery sheds important light on the prevalence of multi-planet systems around dwarf stars like K2-18.

"Being able to measure the mass and density of K2-18b was tremendous, but to discover a new exoplanet was lucky and equally exciting", says Ryan Cloutier, a PhD student in U of T Scarborough's Centre for Planetary Science, U of T's department of astronomy and astrophysics in the Faculty of Arts & Science and the Université de Montréal Institute. As per the researchers, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will play a significant role in finding out further information about this super-Earth.

Engineers inspect the James Webb Space Telescope after cryogenic testing in Houston, November 19, 2017. After figuring out the mass measurements of the planet, the team of researchers successfully established the fact that K2-18b is either largely a water planet with a thick ice-layer over it or it is essentially a rocky planet with a compact atmosphere full of gases, just like that of Earth, but larger in size.

Researcher Professor René Doyon said that there's a lot of demand to use this telescope, so you have to be accurate in picking which exoplanets to look at.

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