'Super-Earth' discovered orbiting Sun's nearest star

Barnard's star b's surface

This artist’s impression shows the frigid surface of Barnard’s star

His claims of how planets could fit in orbit around the star were refuted, and he died five months before the first verifiable discovery of an exoplanet was made in May 1995, Butler said. That puts Barnard's star b squarely into a terra incognita between small rocky planets like Earth and larger gas planets like Neptune.

All of the planets in our (earth's) solar system orbit the sun.

In addition, the new find provides further evidence that planets are almost ubiquitous around red dwarf stars, said Ignasi Ribas, an astronomer and director of the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia in Spain, who led the work.

The newly-discovered planet, named Barnard's star b, is a "super-Earth" with a mass of 3.2 times that of Earth. The paper also says that there is no evidence of anything around the mass of Earth within the habitable zone of Barnard's Star-though Mars-mass objects haven't been ruled out.

These issues provide an intriguing backdrop for today's announcement that one of the closest stars to Earth has a super-Earth companion.

"We knew we would have to be patient".

An artist's rendition of Barnard's star b with the star in the background.

'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'. The technique can detect "wobbles" in a star caused by the gravitational pull of an orbiting planet.

Now, however, astronomers have finally revealed strong signs that Barnard's Star, only about six light-years away, has one or more planets orbiting around it.

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Barnard's star appears to move across the Earth's night sky faster than any other star. The timing of the signal indicates that the planet orbits at about the same distance as Mercury orbits our Sun.

It is, however, closer to its parent star at a distance only 0.4 times of that between Earth and the Sun. And in the not-so-distant someday when telescopes become capable of photographing planets around other stars, it may well be the first new world we see.

Video: This video from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia/Science-Wave describes a newly detected candidate for a planet.

The radial velocity method used in exoplanet hunting requires precise observations of a star's spectrum. This would place the planet at the so-called snow-line of the star, where it is likely to be a frozen world. "Hopefully, we got it right this time", said Guillem Anglada Escude from Queen Mary's School of Physics and Astronomy.

"It´s important because it´s really our nextdoor neighbour and we like to meet our neighbours in general", Ignasi Ribas, from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and Spain´s Institute of Space Sciences, told AFP. Teams of semi-professional astronomers coordinated by the American Association of Variable Star Observers also contributed to the detection. Their analysis suggested there might be a signal of something orbiting with a 230 day period, but the data suffered from what the researchers term "very poor sampling".

These methods haven't always been available to astronomers searching for exoplanets.

However, if the planet has a substantial atmosphere the temperature could be higher and conditions potentially more hospitable.

"The new planet is impossible for Peter van de Kamp to have detected". In the 1960s, the Dutch astronomer Peter van de Kamp, working in the United States, published his evidence for a planetary companion, based on perturbations in the motion of the star.

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