Gliese 1132b: Super-Earth Found To Have Atmosphere, But Can It Host Alien Life?

According to new research, the exoplanet Gliese 1132b is a super-Earth with an atmosphere. It also happens to be relatively close to our home planet, as it is found just 39 light-years away from Earth. Considering its watery atmosphere, could it have all the necessary ingredients to host some form of alien life?

A new paper published this week in the Astronomical Journal suggests that the researchers’ findings on Gliese 1132b (a.k.a. GJ 1132b) mark the first time a super-Earth orbiting a red dwarf has been found to have an atmosphere. Moreover, there may be millions more exoplanets of this kind, the Washington Post wrote.

However, the term “Earth-like,” which the researchers used in describing Gliese 1132b, is merely relative, and not an outright suggestion that it has the same ingredients of life present on our planet, or may actually have a chance of hosting alien life. This exoplanet’s proximity to its sun is similar to how Venus, rather than Earth, is close to our sun, and researchers believe that its average temperature may be at around 700 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s only a modest estimate and one that does not consider the effects of greenhouse gasses that may make Gliese 1132b even hotter.

Scientists also believe that this super-Earth with an atmosphere may be tidally locked, forcing one side of the planet to be facing its sun, and the other side facing opposite it and “cast in (a) permanent shadow.” If we are to consider ideal temperatures and living conditions on Earth, it is highly unlikely that human life, or even alien life, in theory, would be able to survive conditions on Gliese 1132b.

Still, the discovery of an atmosphere in Gliese 1132b is a promising sign for scientists who are looking for signs of alien life, or other planets and exoplanets that could potentially host life. Study lead author John Southworth of Keele University in the United Kingdom said that red dwarves similar to the planet GJ 1132 orbits are the universe’s most common type of star. There’s also the fact that terrestrial planets orbiting these red dwarves are also common – that means there may be more super-Earths with atmospheres, and possibly a few that could actually host life.

“It shows that the huge number of planets in the universe which are like this could have atmospheres themselves and maybe life.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, Gliese 1132b was first discovered by scientists in 2015, who then documented their findings in a study published in the journal Nature. As early as then, researchers were aware that the blazing temperatures on the exoplanet made it highly unlikely that alien life, or any other kind of life, could exist on it, yet also aware that it was still relatively cool, and possibly cool enough to support an atmosphere. They also wrote that the distance between GJ 1132b and its host star made it easy for telescopes to observe the features of its atmosphere.

Based on the findings of the new study and the modeling technology used by the researchers, GJ 1132b’s atmosphere may be rich in water and methane, which could mean the planet has a “steamy atmosphere and perhaps a magma ocean,” according to Arizona State University planetary scientist Laura Schaefer, who agreed with observations Southworth made in the new paper. Schaefer, who was not involved in the new study, told the L.A. Times that scientists might need to make several more observations to make sure that the super-Earth’s atmosphere really does exist.

“It’s not confirmed that it’s water. So it’s very exciting but we definitely need more data on it.”

As for the search for alien life, which may not be feasible in Gliese 1132b but potentially feasible in other exoplanets of its kind, Southworth was quoted by the Washington Post as saying this could take “decades,” assuming extraterrestrial life does exist.

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