In the search for life on other planets, two promising leads have just opened: astrophysicists have identified two worlds with Earth-like masses, sitting in the habitable zone around a red dwarf star called GJ 1002.
The habitable zone around a star is the sweet spot between a planet that is too hot or too cold to support life. To be in this region, planets would have to orbit their star at a distance where there could theoretically be liquid water on their surface.
“GJ 1002 is a red dwarf star, barely one-eighth the mass of the Sun,” says astrophysicist Vera Maria Basinger of the Instituto Astrofisica de Canaras (IAC) in Spain. “It’s a fairly cool, dim star. That means its habitation zone is very close to the star.”
While we’re a long way from confirming the existence of alien life or even running water yet, GJ 1002b and GJ 1002c tick all the boxes so far—and, at only 16 light-years from our solar system, they’re close to where we are in the universe, in terms of astrological.
Two space staring instruments — ESPRESSO (Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations) and CARMENES (Calar Alto High-Resolution search for M dwarfs with Exoearts with Near-infrared and Echelle Spectrographs) — should be used in tandem to locate stars and their planets. .
This is because the faint light emitted by GJ 1002 required instruments of great sensitivity and precision to identify its signatures. The research team used 139 spectral observations (deep space radiation measurements) taken between 2017 and 2021 to discover the planets.
And until now, we don’t know much about these celestial bodies, except where they are. GJ 1002b is closest to its star and takes just over 10 days to complete an orbit; GJ 1002c is farther out, with an orbit of just over 20 days.
The good news is that the relative proximity of GJ 1002b and GJ 1002c means it’s easier to make more detailed observations. The next step will be to assess the atmosphere based on the light it reflects or the heat it emits.
“The future ANDES spectrograph of ESO’s ELT telescope, in which IAC is involved, can study the presence of oxygen in GJ 1002c’s atmosphere,” says astrophysicist Johnny E. Gonzalez-Hernandez of IAC.
We now have a total of 5,000 exoplanets – planets outside Earth – that have been observed. As telescopes and data analysis algorithms improve, we can locate objects that are smaller and farther from Earth.
Thanks to these improvements in technology, we are getting closer to being able to measure the chemical fingerprints of life on these distant planets, even though they are light years away across space.
“Earth-like planets are very common,” says astrophysicist Alejandro Suarez Mascareño of IAC. “With those two, we now know of seven in planetary systems very close to the sun.”
The research was published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.