Artist's impression of the surface of the candidate planet orbiting Barnard's star.
The planet is red dwarf Barnard's inferior to the Sun's mass five times, and covered with ice. Although Barnard's Star is the second-closest star system to Earth-after the three stars of the Alpha Centauri system-astronomers continued to come up empty handed until many years of data could be acquired.
"Barnard's star is an infamous object among astronomers and exoplanet scientists, as it was one of the first stars where planets were initially claimed but later proven to be incorrect", Guillem Anglada Escudé, an astrophysicist at Queen Mary University of London, said in a news release. Known as a "super-Earth", the planet (designated Barnard's Star b, or GJ 699 b) is thought to be at least 3.3 times the mass of Earth and orbits its star once every 233 days. Ultimately they hope to find a world in the habitable zone of these stars, where liquid water could pool on its surface. The experts estimate that the surface temperature of the planet is around -170 degrees Celcius which is -274 Fahrenheit. However, a massive atmosphere could potentially warm the planet, making conditions more hospitable to life. It was discovered as part of a project to find rocky planets around red dwarfs and the instruments used to do this-including the CARMENES (Calar Alto high-Resolution search for M dwarfs with Exoearths with Near-infrared and optical Échelle Spectrographs)-are specially created to do this. Combining it with HARPS powerful ability to detect the smallest of changes in a star's velocity, the researchers put in effect a process called the radial velocity method which had never before been used to detect a similar super-Earth. These wobbles affect the light coming from the star. This imparts a Doppler shift on its light, shifting it to longer wavelengths (redshifting) when it moves away and toward shorter wavelengths (blueshifting) when it moves toward us. This makes Barnard's Star b a prime candidate for us to use powerful spectroscopic techniques to, one day, peer into its atmosphere (if it has one) and understand what it's really made of. Ribas is the first author of the study published in the journal Nature. As it orbits one of the Solar system's closest neighbours, it presents a ideal target for future observations.
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In 1997 the team started scanning Barnard's star using the Keck Observatory's HIRES instrument, which was designed by Vogt himself.
To find these planets, scientists have created the project Pale Red Dot, so named by analogy with the photograph of Earth taken by the probe "Voyager-1" in 1990 from a distance of 6 billion kilometers from earth, which the great astronomer Carl Sagan called "pale blue dot" in one of his public lectures. The information was figuratively stitched together into a dataset that is counted among the most extensive used for detecting planets. While the star itself is ancient - probably twice the age of our Sun - and relatively inactive, it also has the fastest apparent motion of any star in the night sky .
At a distance of six light years from Earth, astronomers have discovered super-earths that revolve beyond our Solar system. It is so close that the next generation of telescopes may be able to image it directly, the researchers said.
Ribas and his team used 800 different observations of Barnard's Star to drive down the uncertainty that the planet existed. "Van de Kamp is a true pioneer in extrasolar planets".