A Step Forward in the Search for Alien Life

Fagjun | Published 2017-04-08 03:12

Astronomers have found that a small, rocky, Earth-like planet in the Vela constellation has a steamy atmosphere that probably contains water and methane. This discovery can aid the search for alien life.

However, scientists have determined that this planet, GJ 1132b, isn't actually able to support life because it orbits too close to its star. The planet's surface temperature is a very hot 370ºC. The highest temperature that life can survive in on Earth is about 120ºC, which is far cooler than GJ 1132b's temperature. In spite of this, scientists still find GJ 1132b useful to the search for alien life.

Discovering GJ 1132b

The red dwarf GJ 1132 is significantly smaller than our sun.
[Image by Nature.com/NASA/SDO]

GJ 1132b is 39 light years away, and is one of the few known extrasolar planets with an atmosphere. Astronomers first discovered the planet in 2015 when it passed in front of a red star. At the time, astronomers didn't think that GJ 1132b has an atmosphere. Recently, though, scientists discovered a gassy shroud enveloping the planet.

Observers at the European Southern Observatory in Chile found that the planet looked bigger at a certain wavelength band of light. It didn't look as big at the other six wavelength bands. This discovery points to the possibility that the planet has an atmosphere.

Further observations show that the atmosphere may be rich in either water or methane, or maybe even both. Since the temperature in the planet is so high, it's possible that the planet is watery with a steamy atmosphere.

GJ 1132b's atmosphere is also probably quite tough. It orbits a low-mass star, which exhibits a lot of magnetic activity. This magnetic activity can cause high levels of X-ray and ultraviolet light. This can strip the atmosphere away from other planets, but apparently not GJ 1132b. The planet's atmosphere remained intact for billions of years despite the proximity to the star.

Practicing for Finding Alien Life

GJ 1132b's star GJ 1132 is a red dwarf, which is a lot more common than stars similar to our sun. Red dwarfs also tend to have a lot of planets orbiting it. The number of red stars as well as the number of planets in their systems may indicate that conditions that can support life is common in the universe.

Thus, there's a possibility that there may be more opportunities to find life in outer space than we know. Even so, searching for alien life isn't the most simple thing to do. Thus, scientists think that they can use GJ 1132b as a venue for testing equipment and techniques for finding life outside of Earth.

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