The collection of rocky planets orbiting distant stars has just grown by one, and the latest discovery is the most intriguing one to date. The newfound world, although hot as an oven, is cool enough to potentially host an atmosphere. If it does, it’s close enough (only 39 light-years away) that we could study that atmosphere in detail with the Hubble Space Telescope and future observatories like the Giant Magellan Telescope.
“Our ultimate goal is to find a twin Earth, but along the way we’ve found a twin Venus,” says astronomer David Charbonneau of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). “We suspect it will have a Venus-like atmosphere too, and if it does we can’t wait to get a whiff.”
“This planet is going to be a favorite target of astronomers for years to come,” adds lead author Zachory Berta-Thompson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Drake Deming, an astronomer at the University of Maryland, told The Guardian that GJ 1132b was “arguably the most important planet ever found outside the solar system”. Its proximity and orbit around a red dwarf will allow astronomers to study the planet with unprecedented fidelity. “It’s nearby, it’s Earth-like, and its star won’t interfere,” Drake said.
Studying exoplanets, particularly earth-like exoplanets, is an important step in the search for extraterrestrial life. GJ 1132b is close enough for astronomers to study (three times closer than the nearest earth-like exoplanet) and may have sister planets nearby that have not yet been detected.