'Super-Earth' found orbiting Barnard's Star, six light years away

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An global team discovered a frozen Super-Earth orbiting the second closest star system or the closest single star to our own Sun, according to a study published on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

An artist's illustration shows what of the exoplanet orbiting Barnard's Star might look like on the surface.

The red dwarf star itself emits only about 0.4% of our sun's radiance, so the planet receives about 2% of the intensity that Earth receives from its sun.

At almost 6 light-years away, the star is the next closest star to the Sun after the Alpha Centauri triple stellar system. "This signal implies that the Barnard´s star approaches and moves away from us at about 1.2 metres per second - approximately the walking speed of a person - and it is best explained by a planet orbiting", Ribas added.

"We all have worked very hard on this result", says Guillem Anglada-Escudé from Queen Mary University of London and co-leader of the study.

The planet actually orbits much closer to Barnard's star than Earth does to the sun, but because the red dwarf puts out much less energy than our star, conditions are likely cold and shadowy on the surface at all times. It orbits its red star every 233 days near the snow-line, a distance where water freezes. The experts estimate that the surface temperature of the planet is around -170 degrees Celcius which is -274 Fahrenheit.

Dr Mikko Tuomi, who originally discovered the planet, said: "The ability to directly image a planet greatly increases our ability to understand its characteristics and increase the potential for possible exploration in future, helping astronomers discover more about the planets that lie beyond our solar system".

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This technique has been used to find hundreds of planets.

Using the same method, known as the Doppler method, the team spotted both planets due to the slight gravitational pull they exert on their host stars causing them to wobble.

This involves looking for light frequency variations that betray the "wobble" an orbiting planet imparts on a star.

"A light source that comes towards us would have its wavelength slightly blue shifted, while a light source that moves away from us has its wavelength slightly red shifted", Ribas said.

"We used observations from seven different instruments, spanning 20 years of measurements", Ignasi Ribas, the team's lead scientist (Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and the Institute of Space Sciences, CSIC in Spain), said in a statement. "We now have decades of archival data at our disposal". Astronomers aren't sure if it's rocky like Earth or built of gas and ice, like Neptune.

For now, the planet is called Barnard star b, it is the second nearest planet to the Earth outside our solar system. As they migrate closer to their host stars, gathering more material, they become planets. Data from a worldwide array of telescopes, including ESO's planet-hunting HARPS instrument, have revealed this frozen, dimly lit world. That exoplanet, called Proxima b, orbits around the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. Very few exoplanets have been found so far from their stars (planets with short orbital periods generate more frequent signals, making them easier to detect).

Even the most powerful telescopes in use today would not be able to image Barnard's Star b directly. "But in the USA, they are also developing WFirst - a small telescope that's also used for cosmology", said Dr Anglada Escudé.