A newfound planet, called Gliese 163c, could be one of the top contenders in a list of planets that could support life beyond Earth, according to researchers.
The newly discovered world, called a “super Earth,” lies on the edge of its star’s habitable zone, which just at the right range where liquid water could exist on its surface, reports Discovery News. Xavier Bonfils, of France’s Joseph Fourier University-Grenoble, stated that:
“There are a wide range of structures and compositions that allow Gliese 163c to be a habitable planet.”
Despite the positive hopes for Gliese 163c, Bonfils also cautioned that there are also several possible uninhabitable conditions as well. Bonfils, along with an international team of fellow astronomers, studied almost 400 red dwarf stars using the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectograph, located on the 3.6-meter telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile
The super Earth was one of two planets they found orbiting the star Gliese 163, which is located about 50 light-years away from Earth in the Dorado constellation. While they discovered evidence of a third planet around the star, they cannot conform it yet.
Gliese 163c is about seven times the mass of Earth and has the potential to either be a rocky planet or a dwarfed gas giant. Bonfils stated:
“We do not know for sure that it is a terrestrial planet. Planets of that mass regime can be terrestrial, ocean, or Neptune-like planets.”
NBC News notes that Gliese 163c orbits its parent star in just 26 days, while the second planet, Gliese 163b, takes just nine days to go around the red dwarf, which is considerably dimmer than our sun.
Gliese 163c ranks fifth on the list of alien worlds that are good candidates to host life, according to the The Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL) at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, which keeps the log. PHL’s Abel Mendez adds that, “We are finding more potentially habitable planets now than before.”
out of the six planets currently on PHL’s list, four have been found in the last year, including Kepler-22b, Gliese 667Cc, HD 85512b, and the latest Gliese 163c. Mendez added that:
“Most of these are relatively close, so we can expect to find better and closer ones as our technological sensitivity to Earth-size planets improves.”
In order to rank their possible habitable planets, Mendez and his colleagues at PHL compare the possibles with Earth, ranking them on similar mass, diameters, and temperatures when compared to Earth. Temperatures are tough to estimate, however, because it is influenced by atmospheric characteristics, which scientists do not know much about using the equipment of today.
Bonfils and his team continue to use HARPS to find more planets that may sustain life, hoping that they can find one they can study today, instead of waiting for technology to catch up. Bonfils stated that, “Although it is nice to build the sample of possibly habitable planets that will be observed with the next generation of telescopes, it would be even better if we could find a planet one could characterize with today’s observatories.”
[Image Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo]