The discovery of an atmosphere around an Earth-like planet has raised hopes that worlds beyond our solar system could support life.
While GJ 1132b is thought to be too hot to be habitable, the detection of the rocky planet’s shroud of gas suggests other planets also boast atmospheres.
Like many planets, the so-called super-Earth orbits a low mass star, a type of star known for firing off particles that could destroy atmospheres and then life.
But GJ 1132b is proof that an atmosphere can survive for billions of years despite its close proximity to such a star.
Discovered by astronomers in 2015, the world is 1.4 times larger than Earth, lies around 39 light years away and has a surface temperature of 370C.
The latest study, published in the Astronomical Journal, suggests that the planet is cloaked in a thick atmosphere made up of either steam and/or methane.
Dr John Southworth, an astronomer at Keele University who led the international study, said the team simulated a range of possible atmospheres:
“The planet is significantly hotter and a bit larger than Earth, so one possibility is that it is a “water world” with an atmosphere of hot steam.”
The scientists observed the planet through the European South Observatory in Chile as it transited its star.
They were able to calculate the planet’s size by how much light was lost during the transit and detect its atmosphere by looking for the wavelengths of light that it absorbed and blocked out.
The team is now looking to carry out further observations to find out more about the chemical make-up of the planet’s atmosphere.
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In February, NASA announced the discovery of seven Earth-like planets orbiting a single star just 40 light years away.
Three of those planets orbit within the habitable zone of their solar system, making them prime candidates for the search for alien life.
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