Existence of new ‘super-Earth’ planet proved by University of Hertfordshire

PUBLISHED: 10:01 15 November 2018 | UPDATED: 10:04 15 November 2018

Artist's impression of the Barnard star b's surface. Picture: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Artist's impression of the Barnard star b's surface. Picture: ESO/M. Kornmesser

ESO/M. Kornmesser

Astronomers from the University of Hertfordshire have confirmed the existence of a frozen planet orbiting the fastest star in the sky.

Artist's impression of Barnard's star b viewed from space. Picture: ESO/M. KornmesserArtist's impression of Barnard's star b viewed from space. Picture: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The new planet is known as a ‘super-Earth’ and has a minimum of 3.2 Earth masses.

It orbits Barnard’s Star, a red dwarf that is smaller and older than our sun, and is the closest star to our sun after Alpha Centauri.

The planet’s existence has been proven by an international team of researchers, including boffins from the University of Hertfordshire.

The new planet, named Barnard’s star b, orbit’s Barnard’s Star every 233 days.

This chart shows the location of Barnard's Star and marks most of the stars visible to the unaided eye on a clear dark night. Picture: ESO, IAU and Sky & TelescopeThis chart shows the location of Barnard's Star and marks most of the stars visible to the unaided eye on a clear dark night. Picture: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope

The discovery has been announced to denizens of this planet in the journal Nature.

Professor Hugh Jones, from the University of Hertfordshire and a co-author on the paper, said: “The announcement of the planet has been a long time in the making; initial observations of the planet were made by Dr Paul Butler at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in June 1997.

“My colleague Dr Mikko Tuomi had discovered the planet’s fingerprints in archival data in 2015 and we first submitted a scientific paper presenting the planet’s existence back in March 2017.

“However, we didn’t have enough evidence to conclusively support such a major discovery.”

Since the planet’s initial detection, an international effort called the Red Dots collaboration – led by Guillem Anglada-Escude at Queen Mary University of London and formerly based at the University of Hertfordshire – has been monitoring Barnard’s star with high precision instruments to investigate the signal.

Their measurements suggested that Barnard’s Star is approaching and moving away from us at about walking speed — and it is best explained by a planet, Barnard’s star b, orbiting it.

“These major observing campaigns gave us enough observations to confirm the planetary signal with several independent datasets and with the variety of different signal analysis tools that we had built at the University of Hertfordshire,” said co-author Dr Fabo Feng.

Barnard’s star was discovered in 1916 and is six light years away from the Sun.

It has long captured the attention of astronomers, science fiction authors, filmmakers and game developers as a promising location for an orbiting planet.

It is the fastest-moving star on our sky, traversing the full moon in 174 years.

For most of human history, it was thought that the positions of the stars were fixed, but to modern astronomers, Barnard’s Star is virtually zipping across the sky.

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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