Astronomers have announced the discovery of a new planet just outside our solar system that they believe could potentially be inhabitable. The planet, which is being referred to by scientists as HD85512b for the time being, was discovered along with approximately 50 other planets.
The discovery was announced on Monday at a conference in Moran, Wyoming. Unlike the other planets that were discovered around the same time, HD85512b is unique because scientists believe it is just barely in a habitable zone known as the “Goldilocks zone”- not too hot and not too cold for the presence of liquid water. Scientists have indicated that the presence of liquid water is a crucial element of supporting Earth-like life.
The recently discovered group of planets, including HD85512b, were discovered by the European Southern Observatory. The observatory employs an instrument specifically designed to look for new planets called HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher), which is located at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. HARPS uses a radial velocity technique to study celestial bodies and has discovered more than 150 planets in the last eight years.
The potentially habitable planet was observed more than 1,000 times over the course of two hundred nights of tracking using HARPS in Chile. Michel Mayor, the leader of the HARPS team, said that “the harvest of discoveries from HARPS has exceeded all expectations and includes an exceptionally rich population of super-Earths and Neptune-type planets hosted by stars very similar to our Sun.”
HD85512b is not the first potentially habitable planet to be discovered. In 2010, a planet called Gliese 581g was named as an “earth-like planet.” The credibility of Gliese 581g has been disputed, however, with some critics referring to the planet’s existence as a data glitch.
HD85512b is approximately 3.6 times the mass of Earth. Temperatures on the newly discovered planet range between 85 to 120 degrees with a very humid climate. Researchers have been quick to point out that describing the planet as potentially habitable indicates that it could support life, but not necessarily human life. Instead, the planet would most likely be able to support life forms that were shorter and squatter than humans, given the planet’s gravity, which is about 1.4 times greater than Earth’s.
Lisa Kaltenegger, an expert on exoplanets, has noted that “this is the lowest-mass confirmed planet discovered by the radial velocity method that potentially lies in the habitable zone of its star, and the second low-mass planet discovered by HARPS inside the habitable zone.”
In order for HD85512b to be considered habitable, it would have to be approximately 50% covered by clouds. Earth has around 60% cloud cover, so scientists have deemed 50% reasonable for the new planet. The presence of cloud cover is an important factor in the presence of liquid water on an planet.
The planet exists in the constellation Vela and circles an orange dwarf star about 36 light-years from Earth. A year on HD85512b is only 60 days. The planet’s sun is about 1,800 degrees cooler than our sun, indicating that the planet might not be too hot to support life. Other factors that indicate the potential habitability of the planet are its orbit, which is almost completely circular, providing a stable climate. In addition, the planet’s parent star is older and less active than the Earth’s sun, which decreases the chances of electromagnetic storms that could damage the planet’s atmosphere.
The discovery of HD85512b “demonstrates the possibility of discovering other super-Earths in the habitable zones around stars similar to the Sun,” said Mayor. He also noted that with the increasing amount of newly discovered celestial bodies “we should have the first list of potentially habitable planets in the Sun’s neighborhood” within the next ten to twenty years. To continue studying new planets, scientists have plans to build new instruments, including a replica of HARPS, which will be installed in the Canary Islands to observe the northern sky. In addition, another planet-hunter, known as ESPRESSO, will be installed in 2016 on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope.
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