Scientists found a new Earth-sized planet nearby…and it might be habitable

Ross 128 b exoplanet

Today, however, scientists have announced the location of a relatively nearby planet that may be the best candidate we've ever found for supporting life.

Meet the new neighbor: an Earth-sized exoplanet just 11 light-years away that could potentially harbor life.

Proxima b, the closest temperate exoplanet to us, orbits just such an active star.

Scientists at the European Southern Observatory think "Ross 128 B" may be capable of sustaining life. In addition, it's the closest planet to have been observed orbiting an inactive red dwarf star - an arrangement that may raise the likelihood that it could sustain life. Our planetary search techniques rely on measuring variations in gravity or a star's apparent magnitude as a planet transits across it, and smaller planets are much harder to find with these methods. That puts the planet about 20 times closer to its star than Earth is to the Sun.

Ross 128b was found with the help of ESO's High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument, that is attached to ESO's 3.6 metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, and although the circumstances look favourable, scientists involved in the project are uncertain as to whether the planet lies inside, outside, or on the edge of the habitable zone where liquid water may exist on a planet's surface. That not only means that any life that is supported by them is more likely to flourish on planets that are closer, but it also means that they're easier for us to see, because there's not such a bright sun in the way. In our own solar system, it's the area roughly between the orbits of Venus and Mars. "It is common that stars harbor more than a single planet", Astudillo-Defru told Futurism.

But these are comparatively hard to detect; most of the 3,500 known exoplanets are so-called Hot Jupiters - huge gas giants orbiting very close to their parent stars that likely don't have suitable conditions for life. "Ross 128 is one of the quietest stars of the neighborhood". The blasts of ultraviolet and X-ray radiation can rip away a nearby exoplanet's atmosphere and limit the possibility for alien life.

Although it is now 11 light years from Earth, the planet is moving towards us and is expected to be our nearest star neighbor in just 79,000 years, a blink of an eye in cosmic terms.

However, Ross 128b's star is much less volatile than typical red dwarfs. Méndez's team wasn't looking for extraterrestrial signals; they were hoping to learn how red dwarf flares interacted with exoplanets.

Because the planet is so low-mass, the researchers are pretty sure that it's rocky like Earth.

And the star may indeed be targeted in the not-too-distant-future - by giant ground-based instruments such as the European Extremely Large Telescope, the Giant Magellan Telescope, and the Thirty Meter Telescope, all of which are scheduled to be up and running by the mid-2020s.

When Méndez's team looked at the results, they saw something peculiar: some unusual, semi-repeating signals coming from Ross 128.