Ross 128 b: There’s another possibly habitable world on our galactic doorstep
Astronomers have found a potentially habitable world a mere 11 light years away from our planet, adding another major target to our search for life beyond Earth.
The planet – named Ross 128 b like some intergalactic David Schwimmer clone – is 35% bigger than Earth, has years lasting 9.9 days, and is 20 times closer to its star than we are to the Sun. You’d think that would mean the planet’s surface would be uncomfortably hot, but the star (called Ross 128) also happens to be a red dwarf, which is weaker than our Sun.
The discovery was made by a team of European and South American astronomers, headed up by Xavier Bonfils, from France’s Institut de Planétologie et d’Astrophysique de Grenoble. The researchers worked with the European Southern Observatory’s HARPS instrument – dedicated to the search for new planets – and published their results in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.
The paper explains that Ross 128 (that’s the star not the planet) is a relatively calm red dwarf, producing fewer stellar flares than comparable stars such as Proxima Centauri – the star to our closest potentially livable exoplanet, Proxima Centauri b. Fewer stellar flares means less chance of life being sterilised before it has a chance to develop.
Before you get too excited, a word on space distances: 11 light years is close, but everything is relative. New Horizons – a ship without capacity for humans passengers – is our current fastest vessel with a speed of 58,536km/h, meaning it could go from London to Sydney in 15 minutes. To get to Ross 128, on the other hand, would take it around 198,000 years. As holiday destinations go, that’s on the theoretical end of the spectrum.
Still, in the greater scheme of things, it’s close. For reference, Proxima Centauri b is only 4.24 light years away from Earth. Much, much further away is Keplar-452b – which NASA once dubbed “Earth 2.0” – at 1,400 light years. Another system that has scientists excited about alien life is the TRAPPIST-1 system of seven potentially habitable planets, based 39 light years from Earth.
Set against this, Ross 128 b’s 11 light years is relatively close. If we wait long enough, we might even find the planet on our galactic doorstep: “Ross 128 is moving towards us and will actually become our closest neighbour in just 71,000 years from now,” the scientists note in their paper.
Instead of waiting 71,000 years, we’ll likely have to wait until only 2024 for more information about Ross 128 b’s surface. That’s when humorously titled European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) is set to be opened by the European Southern Observatory. With a mirror 40 metres in diameter – four times larger than current telescope mirrors – it should be able to capture signs of oxygen on Ross 128 b.
That would be a very encouraging sign indeed about potential alien life.