Primitive life is possible on nearby exoplanet, scientists say

Astronomers believe that recently discovered super-Earth Barnard’s star b, only six light-years away, might be able to support life.

Barnard’s star b was only announced in November; it orbits Barnard’s star, the closest solitary star to our sun. This makes it the second closest-known exoplanet to us. Previously, an exoplanet was found orbiting in the three-star Proxima Centauri system, only 4.2 light-years away.

Though Barnard’s star b is more than three times the mass of Earth, it’s also frozen, which didn’t sound very encouraging for supporting life.

The planet is probably dimly lit by its star and slightly colder than Saturn. The researchers believe that it is an icy desert with no liquid water, a hostile environment where the average surface temperature is around minus-274 degrees Fahrenheit.

But Villanova University astrophysicists Edward Guinan and Scott Engle announced Thursday that they believe life could function in an unusual way on the frozen planet. The announcement was made during the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle.

Beneath its frozen surface, Barnard’s star b could have a hot, liquid core of iron and nickel, which could support primitive life with geothermal activity.

“Geothermal heating could support ‘life zones’ under its surface, akin to subsurface lakes found in Antarctica,” Guinan said. “We note that the surface temperature on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is similar to Barnard b, but because of tidal heating, Europa probably has liquid oceans under its icy surface.”

Guinan also believes that future telescopes could take a closer look at Barnard’s star b. This would make it one of the only Earth-size exoplanets nearby that could be imaged.

“Such observations will shed light on the nature of the planet’s atmosphere, surface and potential habitability,” he added.

Finding a frozen Super-Earth

The exoplanet was found after stitching together 20 years of data, including 771 individual measurements, from seven instruments. For years, astronomers thought they would find a planet around the nearby star, but it eluded them.

“The biggest ‘kick’ about this discovery is the host star,” Paul Butler, co-author of the November study in which the planet was announced and astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science, wrote in an email. “Barnard’s star is the ‘great white whale’ of planet hunting.”

And to look at it through a telescope, the star appears to be moving the fastest among the other stars in the night sky. This is because it’s moving quickly in relation to the sun, and it’s the nearest single star in the sky to us, Butler said.

“The star is named in honor of the great American astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard, who was a pioneer of stellar photography and astrometry,” Butler said. “He recognized that this star had the largest known proper motion a century ago.”

The planet is about the same orbital distance from its star as Mercury is from our sun, making a full pass around the star every 233 days. This places it in the “snow line” of the star, where it’s cold enough for water to freeze into solid ice. This region in a planetary system is where the building blocks of planets are thought to form, collecting material to become cores. As they migrate closer to their host stars, gathering more material, they become planets.

The red dwarf star itself emits only about 0.4% of our sun’s radiance, so the planet receives about 2% of the intensity that Earth receives from its sun. This is because Barnard’s star is in the class of M dwarf stars, cooler and less massive than our sun. It’s also an old star that predates our own solar system.

“Barnard’s Star is about twice as old as the Sun — about 9 billion years old compared to 4.6 billion years for the Sun,” Villanova’s Engle said. “The universe has been producing Earth-size planets far longer than we, or even the Sun itself, have existed.”