Science

Two Super-Earths Located Just 111 Light-Years From Earth

Two Super-Earths Located Just 111 Light-Years From Earth

Ryan Cloutier, of the University of Montreal, said: "Being able to measure the mass and density of K2-18b was tremendous, but to discover a new exoplanet was lucky and equally exciting". Scientists, aside from two regular signals that they received every 39 days from the star's rotation and every 33 days from the planet's orbit, discovered a third signal which they received every nine days, which was the first indication that there might be another planet close to K2-18b.

The exoplanet known as K2-18b has been described as being a potential "Super-Earth" - a large rocky planet with the potential to support life.

Both planets are around 111 light years from Earth so while they're not exactly within a vacationing distance they are still extremely close when thinking about the size of our galaxy.

The team, led by Ryan Cloutier, a PhD student at the University of Toronto's department of astronomy and astrophysics, analysed the data collected from the European Southern Observatory (ESO). That means that a satellite or manned mission traveling to K2-18b would take over 2.3 million years to get there.

If that weren't exciting enough the team then realised that their newly discovered super-Earth wasn't alone and in fact had a neighbour. To do so, researchers used the La Silla Observatory in Chile, pulling data sets from the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), which can detect even very tiny planets that surround stars. By measuring the radial velocities of stars, which can be influenced by the presence of planets around those stars, HARPS can allow for the detection of the planets around the stars.

The researchers, however, did not rule out the possibility of the planet being mostly water with a thick layer of ice. "Once all the boxes were checked it sunk in that, wow, this actually is a planet".

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"With the current data, we can not distinguish between those two possibilities", Cloutier said.

"There's a lot of demand to use this telescope, so you have to be meticulous in choosing which exoplanets to look at", says René Doyon, a co-author on the paper who is with Université de Montréal Institute and a principal investigator for NIRISS, which is the Canadian Space Agency instrument on board the James Webb Space Telescope.

Engineers inspect the James Webb Space Telescope after cryogenic testing in Houston, November 19, 2017.

The list of targets for the forthcoming telescope is long, but Cloutier and his colleagues think K2-18b is a deserving candidate. According to study authors, the discovery sheds important light on the prevalence of multi-planet systems around dwarf stars like K2-18.

The researchers were trying to determine what K2-18b's surface is made out of in their study. "But whether or not there is surface water, we're going to have to do some follow up observations to figure that out for sure, because right now we just don't know".


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