Astronomers have spotted a rocky planet orbiting Barnard’s star – the closest single star to the sun, and second closest stellar system to us after the triple-star Alpha Centauri.
Astronomers have hunted for a planet orbiting the red dwarf since the Sixties – and have now spotted a signal which suggests a planet orbiting the star.
AStronomers led by Ignasi Ribas of the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC) spotted a a cold super-Earth three times the size of our planet, orbiting its red dwarf star every 233 days.
This would place the planet at the so-called snow-line of the star, where it is likely to be a frozen world.
In the absence of an atmosphere, the planet’s temperature is likely to be about -150 °C, which makes it unlikely that the planet can support liquid water on its surface.
However, its characteristics make it an excellent target for direct imaging using the next generation of instruments.
Measurements from high-precision instruments, including the High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) at W. M. Keck Observatory unearthed the planet – after 16 years of observations.
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Professor Steven Vogt of UC Santa Cruz said, ‘Barnard’s star is among the nearby red dwarfs that represents an ideal target to search for exoplanets that could someday actually be reached by future interstellar spacecraft.
‘We knew we would have to be patient. We followed Barnard’s star for 16 long years at Keck, amassing some 260 radial velocities of Barnard’s star by 2013.
‘Fortunately, our long-running Keck planet search program gave us the years we needed to gather enough precision radial velocity data with HIRES to begin to sense the presence of a planet.’
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Barnard’s star appears to move across the Earth’s night sky faster than any other star. Smaller and older than our Sun, it is among the least active red dwarfs known.
Vogt said, ‘It is the most common type of star in the galaxy — over 70 percent of Milky Way stars are like this dim, M dwarf star. Though it is extremely close, Barnard’s star is too faint to be seen with the naked eye.’