Astronomers have found two new planets this week — a super-hot, Earth-sized twin of Venus, and a dwarf planet three times farther from the sun than Pluto. The discoveries have the potential to unlock the secrets of our solar system and possibly help us find life beyond Earth.
The Earth-sized exoplanet and Venus twin is called GJ 1132b and is about 230 trillion miles — or 39 light years — away, outside our own solar system, NBC News reported. An astronomer named Zachory Berta-Thompson found the Venus twin in May with telescopes in Chile.
“Our ultimate goal is to find a twin Earth,” said a fellow astronomer, David Charbonneau of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who co-wrote a study on the discovery. “But along the way we’ve found a twin Venus.”
So far, the Venus twin looks pretty hostile to life. Its atmosphere is thick, and scientists expect it to be similar to the one found on Venus, meaning full of carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas, Discovery added. And it’s positively blistering, with temperatures soaring to 450 degrees, which makes it hotter than Venus and hot enough to vaporize water instantly.
The Venus twin is more comparable in size to Earth, slightly bigger at 9,200 miles in diameter and with a mass is 60 percent more than ours. The star it orbits is a red dwarf a fifth the size of our sun, but the planet keeps pretty close to it at about 1.4 million miles. However, astronomers think that the Venus twin is tidally locked to its home star (like Earth is to its moon), which means the side facing its star is scorching, but the side facing away is cool.
That means the Venus twin could have “habitable regions,” said astronomer Drake Deming.
Luckily, the Venus twin is just close enough for the Hubble Space Telescope to study; starting in 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope will launch and continue the analysis. Scientists want to learn more about its atmosphere; their long-term plan is to scan it and other distant planets to spy the chemical signatures for life.
At the same time, another astronomer has announced the discovery of another distant world, this one farther from the sun than Pluto. Its sighting on the outer reaches of our solar system provides scientists with the tantalizing prospect that an Earth-sized planet is out there just waiting to be discovered, according to ABC News.
The dwarf planet is much smaller than the Venus twin, at one-third the size of Pluto or about 300 to 600 miles in diameter. Called V774104, scientists still don’t know too much about it, but it has the potential to be fascinating and unlock the mysterious past of our own solar system.
“We don’t know much about its orbit,” said the man who found the dwarf planet, astronomer Scott Sheppard, who works at the Carnegie Institution for Science. “If the object becomes interesting or not depends on its orbit. We don’t know of any other objects that are this far away from the sun. This can help us understand how the outer solar system was formed.”
But those answers will be a long time coming — it’ll take year to answer that important question and even decide what kind of celestial body it is. For now, at 103 times the distance of Earth from the sun, V774104 will enjoy the distinction of being the most distant object in the solar system, beating out dwarf Eris.
But like the Venus twin, this dwarf has lots of potential. Another recently discovered distant dwarf, called 2012 VP113, had an odd orbit, which led scientists to theorize that another planetary-mass object was tugging at it, Popular Mechanics explained. If the orbit of this newly found dwarf shows the signs of the same tug, that adds to the speculation that a Neptune-sized world or super-Earth could be hiding even farther out, but as yet too faint and far away to see.
“If the orbit turns out to … stay far away from the giant planet region, it’s … unperturbed by the orbit of the discovered giant planets,” Sheppard explained. “So we can look to see if this orbit falls in line with what we’d expect for the orbit of this hypothetical giant planet out there.”
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