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New Planet Outside Our Solar System Could Support Life

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Earth has a new competitor outside of our solar system, and it's actually fairly close.

Ross 128 b is an Earth-sized planet about 11 light years away from our own. It's the second-closest exoplanet (those found outside of our solar system) found to date, CNN reports.

Scientists believe Ross 128 b has a similar surface temperature to Earth, meaning it could potentially support life.

Researches discovered the planet using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher instrument at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. They published their discovery on Nov. 15 in the Journal of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

"To be involved in such a discovery is very rewarding, and it helps to realize that so much effort is worth it," said Nicola Astudillo-Defru, one of the study's co-authors at the University of Geneva's observatory, in an email to CNN. "The special properties of this system means that we are contributing our bit on the search of an Earth 2.0."

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Though Ross 128 b appears quite similar to Earth, there are a few notable differences. It is 1.5 times heavier in mass and has a much shorter orbit around its sun, according to The Verge. Whereas Earth takes 365 days to make a full revolution, Ross 128 b takes about 10 Earth days.

The planet orbits a red dwarf star, the smallest and coolest type of stars in space. It is 20 times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun, though the star is 280 times less luminous than the one we know. This differentiates Ross 128 b from another exoplanet found near a previously-discovered red dwarf, Proxima Centauri.

Unlike Ross 128 b's star, Proxima Centauri is more active and frequently emits damaging solar flares, making it an unlikely candidate for life.

"The planet we found is around one of the quietest stars in the solar neighborhood," said Xavier Bonfils, the study's lead author and an astronomer at the Institute of Planetology and Astrophysics in Grenoble, France, to The Verge.

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There's a lot the researchers still don't know about the planet, though a telescope in development in Chile could help them find out. The amusingly-named Extremely Large Telescope might be powerful enough to see into the planet's atmosphere upon its completion in 2025.

“If we are able to identify all three [gases] in the same exoplanet atmosphere, it would be a smoking gun for life on the surface,” said Bonfils.

In the meantime, scientists will continue to search for other planets in the vicinity of Ross 128 b.

Sources: CNN, The Verge / Featured Image: JPL-Caltech/NASA / Embedded Images: Lynette Cook/NASA, M. Kornmesser/European Southern Observatory/Flickr

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