Exoplanet From Nearby Star System Could Host Primitive Life

The most well-known neighboring star system of our solar system is the Centauri triple-star system. Scientists believe some of its planets could harbor life similar to that of Earth. Scientists have also studied an exoplanet from a nearby star system called Barnard’s Star, and they now believe it could host primitive life.

Barnard’s Star b, designated as GJ 699 officially, is a super-Earth: a rocky world with the same geophysical properties as Earth except much bigger in size. It belongs to the second-nearest star system to Earth. Although temperatures on the star fall as low as -170 degrees Fahrenheit, there is still a slight possibility the exoplanet from the nearby star system could host primitive life if it has a large, hot iron-nickel core and is geologically active. Villanova University astrophysicists Edward Guinan and Scott Engle presented their study of the star system at a Jan. 10 press conference at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomy Society (AAS) in Seattle, Wash.

“Geothermal heating could support ‘life zones’ under its surface, akin to subsurface lakes found in Antarctica,” Guinan said in a statement. “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.”

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Researchers believe the next-generation space telescope, the long-anticipated James Webb Space Telescope, will provide more insight into foreign worlds such as Barnard’s Star b.

“Such observations will shed light on the nature of the planet’s atmosphere, surface, and potential habitability,” Guinan said, referring to the super-Earth he believes could host primitive life.

After a lot of issues and delays, the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope has been re-scheduled for 2021, NASA said last month. Thus, researchers will have to wait a while before they have access to new data on the exoplanet from the nearby star system.

“The most significant aspect of the discovery of Barnard’s star b is that the two nearest star systems to the Sun are now known to host planets. This supports previous studies based on Kepler Mission data, inferring that planets can be very common throughout the galaxy, even numbering in the tens of billions,” Engle noted.  “Also, Barnard’s Star is about twice as old as the Sun – about 9 billion years old compared to 4.6 billion years for the Sun. The universe has been producing Earth-size planets far longer than we, or even the Sun itself, have existed.”

The two scientists behind the study acquired precise photometry of Bernard’s Star and many other stars over the last 15 years. The data was also included in another study led by Borja Toledo-Padrón, a doctoral student at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands, University of La Laguna. That study is available on the preprint website arXiv.