A planet just 3.4 parsecs away either having liquid water or just shy of having some makes an extremely appealing characterization target.
Stellar activity is probably the highest concern regarding the emergence of life, and even the survival of an atmosphere, on planets orbiting M dwarfs. Restricting the target list to quiet stars would disqualify Proxima Cen b and leave Ross 128 b as the best temperate planet known to date. This will certainly make this new temperate exoEarth a top target for characterization with the 39 meter extremely large telescope ELTs. The ELT is under construction and should be ready in 2024 to start performing science.
Proxima B (4 light years away) and Ross128b have similar optical apparent magnitudes, leading to similar planetary apparent magnitudes. A realistic investment of E-ELT resources can therefore most likely detect Ross 128 b with high-angular resolution plus high-dispersion spectroscopy, although not as easily as Prox Cen b.
The combination of high-contrast imaging and high-dispersion spectroscopy, which has successfully been use to detect the atmosphere of a giant planet, is one of the most promising potential probes of the atmosphere of Earth-size worlds. The forthcoming generation of extremely large telescopes (ELTs) may obtain sufficient contrast with this technique to detect O2 in the atmosphere of those worlds that orbit low-mass M dwarfs. This is strong motivation to carry out a census of planets around cool stars for which habitable zones can be resolved by ELTs, i.e. for M dwarfs within ∼5 parsecs. Our HARPS survey has been a major contributor to that sample of nearby planets. Here we report on our radial velocity observations of Ross 128 (Proxima Virginis, GJ447, HIP 57548), an M4 dwarf just 3.4 parsec away from our Sun. This source hosts an exo-Earth with a projected mass m sin i = 1.35M⊕ and an orbital period of 9.9 days. Ross 128 b receives ∼1.38 times as much flux as Earth from the Sun and its equilibrium ranges in temperature between 269 K for an Earth-like albedo and 213 K for a Venus-like albedo. Recent studies place it close to the inner edge of the conventional habitable zone. An 80-day long light curve from K2 campaign C01 demonstrates that Ross 128 b does not transit. Together with the All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS) photometry and spectroscopic activity indices, the K2 photometry shows that Ross 128 rotates slowly and has weak magnetic activity. In a habitability context, this makes survival of its atmosphere against erosion more likely. Ross 128 b is the second closest known exo-Earth, after Proxima Centauri b (1.3 parsec), and the closest temperate planet known around a quiet star. The 15 mas planet-star angular separation at maximum elongation will be resolved by ELTs in the optical bands of O2.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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