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Rocky Earth-Sized GJ 1132b With Venus-like Atmosphere Is ‘Most Important Planet Ever Found Outside The Solar System,’ Says University of Maryland Astronomer Drake Deming

by Therese Agcopra / Nov 12, 2015 09:19 PM EST
GJ 1132b was discovered orbiting a nearby red dwarf star. (Photo by Dana Berry / NASA)

A Venus-like exoplanet 39 light years away from the Earth has been dubbed as "arguably the most important planet ever found outside the solar system."

The exoplanet, named GJ 1132b is about 16 percent larger than Earth, The Guardian noted Wednesday. This is the closest rocky planet with nearly the same size as Earth found near another star. With its distance, astronmers hope to make better observations of its atmosphere and its weather patterns.

Astronomers discovered the planet orbiting Gliese 1132, which has been classified as an M-dwarf star or a red dwarf. It is only 32 percent the size of the sun, reported Space.

Although the star is much cooler than the sun, GJ 1132b's surface temperatures could still spike to 260 degrees Celsius since it orbits very close to Gliese 1132. The exoplanet receives sharp levels of radiation compared to Earth, making it inhospitable to human life.

"Our ultimate goal is to find a twin Earth, but along the way we've found a twin Venus," said astronomer David Charbonneau at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). "We suspect it will have a Venus-like atmosphere too, and if it does we can't wait to get a whiff."

GJ 1132b's searing temperatures makes the exoplanet too hot to maintain liquid water. However, it is cool enough to retain an atmosphere. Nevertheless, astronomers from CfA say GJ 1132b is the coolest rocky exoplanet ever discovered.

The CfA noted that GJ 1132b is "significantly cooler than any other exoplanet confirmed to be rocky. In comparison, well-known worlds such as CoRoT-7b and Kepler-10b possess scorching temperatures of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit or more."

"If this planet still has an atmosphere, then we might find other, cooler planets that also have atmospheres and orbit small stars. We can then imagine interrogating the atmospheres for molecules that come from life," said Zacahory Berta-Thompson from MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

Scientific America wrote Thursday the exoplanet was detected using the MEarth-South telescope array, a cluster of eight 4-meter telescopes located at the Cerro-Tololo Inter-America Observatory in Chile. The telescope array uses the transit method to hunt for exoplanets. This method looks at regular "dips" in the amount of light coming for a star, and every dip is a telling sign that a planet just orbited in front of the star.

GJ 1132b takes 1.6 to complete a single orbit around Gliese 1132.

A more in-depth study of GJ 1132 will be conducted by the James Webb Space Telescope, a successor of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is due to launch in 2018.

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