Frozen Super-Earth discovered orbiting nearby Barnard’s star

Martin Kornmesser  ESO

In a new paper published in Nature, researchers explain that they've detected a dip in the brightness of a nearby red dwarf known as Barnard's star. Barnard's star b completes an orbit around its sun every 233 days.

Teske said that there are hints that there might be another planet around Barnard's Star, although it's hard to determine if the signal that investigators saw is from the star itself or from another planet.

The method they used to find the planet is called the radial velocity (or reflex velocity, which conveniently has the same initials RV) method. Planets around red dwarfs tend to skew to Earth-size - bigger planets around these kinds of stars are more rare - and red dwarfs are by far the most common kind of star in the galaxy, outnumbering more massive stars like the Sun by more than five to one.

As a red dwarf, Barnard's star is smaller, older and much cooler than the sun. It orbits too far from its parent star to get enough warmth for liquid water on its surface. After dismissing evidence for an exoplanet orbiting this star in the 1970s, the team now says there's a very good chance Barnard's Star does indeed host a super-Earth.

"We knew we would have to be patient". While nearly twice as old as the sun, Barnard's star is relatively inactive and has the fastest apparent motion of any star in the night sky.

This discovery showcases the power of the radial velocity technique for detecting small planets. From 1963 to 1972, the star was widely believed to host one or more gas giants, accounting for some of the earliest extrasolar planet claims that received widespread attention. This imparts a Doppler shift on its light, shifting it to longer wavelengths (redshifting) when it moves away and toward shorter wavelengths (blueshifting) when it moves toward us. This is because it's moving quickly in relation to the sun, and it's the nearest single star in the sky to us, Butler said.

The find makes it even more clear that most of the stars we see in the night sky probably have at least one world circling them, increasing the likelihood we aren't alone in the vast universe.

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One of them was the new state-of-the-art planet-hunting instrument Carmenes at the Calar Alto Observatory in Spain.

What was going on? van de Kamp's observations were made using a large refracting telescope, and astronomers eventually realised that the telescope's main objective lens had been cleaned and modified several times during the decades of his study.

"After a very careful analysis, we are 99 per cent confident that the planet is there", researcher Ignasi Ribas of the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and the Institute of Space Sciences said in a statement.

Yet much about the planet around Barnard's Star remains uncertain. "We combined archival data from other teams with new, overlapping, measurements of Barnard's star from different facilities", commented Guillem Anglada Escudé (Queen Mary University of London), co-lead scientist of the team behind this result.

"Future space-based telescopes like WFIRST might be able to observe reflected light from Barnard's star off of the planet, and thus tell us something about the composition of the surface and/or atmosphere of the planet", Teske said. In the 1960s, the Dutch astronomer Peter van de Kamp, working in the U.S., published his evidence for a planetary companion, based on perturbations in the motion of the star.

These methods haven't always been available to astronomers searching for exoplanets.

"The new planet is impossible for Peter van de Kamp to have detected".

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