Alien life may be pos­si­ble on nearby ‘Su­per-Earth’

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Doyle Rice USA TO­DAY

A “nearby” Su­per-Earth planet has the po­ten­tial for life to de­velop, astronomers an­nounced this week.

Sci­en­tists said Thurs­day that if water ex­ists on the planet, geo­ther­mal heat­ing could cre­ate a sub­sur­face ocean where prim­i­tive life might ex­ist. The planet or­bits Barnard’s Star, which is the sec­ond­near­est star sys­tem to the Earth.

The planet – known as Barnard b – is ad­mit­tedly a bit on the nippy side at 274 de­grees below zero. This means the planet would be ice-cov­ered. But un­der­neath the ice could be water “that pro­vides niches for life,” ac­cord­ing to Vil­lanova Univer­sity as­tro­physi­cists Ed­ward Guinan and Scott En­gle.

The find­ings were pre­sented Thurs­day at the an­nual meet­ing of the Amer­i­can Astro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety in Seat­tle.

The planet was dis­cov­ered only two months ago.

Warmth from the planet’s hot core could cause life to form in the planet’s oceans, which would be un­der­neath its ice-cov­ered sur­face.

“We note that the sur­face tem­per­a­ture on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is sim­i­lar to Barnard b, but be­cause of tidal heat­ing, Europa prob­a­bly has liq­uid oceans un­der its icy sur­face,” he said.

Su­per-Earths are plan­ets with masses larger than the Earth but not as big as the ice giants in our so­lar sys­tem, such as Nep­tune and Uranus.

The planet and its star are nearby in cos­mic terms only: At 30 tril­lion miles from Earth, Barnard’s Star is the clos­est sin­gle star to our so­lar sys­tem. Barnard b is a bar­ren, frigid world be­cause light from Barnard’s Star pro­vides it with only 2 per­cent of the en­ergy the Earth re­ceives from the sun.

Guinan said tele­scopes will need to con­tinue peer­ing at the planet.

GUILLEM RAMISA/IEEC/SCI­ENCE-WAVE

An artist’s con­cep­tion of the planet that’s in or­bit around Barnard’s Star.

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