Five Things You Should Know About Ross 128, A New (Potentially Habitable) Planet

November 15, 2017, 4:27 PM UTC

If we screw up this Earth, we may have found a backup.

Scientists say they’ve discovered a new planet called Ross 128 b that could possibly sustain life. And it’s right around the corner — well, cosmically speaking.

Located just 11 light-years away, Ross 128 b is a temperate planet that orbits a ‘quiet star,’ which gets its name from the fact that it doesn’t spew out life-threatening bursts of radiation. But before you pack your bags and rush out the door, there are a few things you might want to know.

Artist’s impression of the planet Ross 128 b
This artist’s impression shows the temperate planet Ross 128 b, with its red dwarf parent star in the background. This planet, which lies only 11 light-years from Earth, was found by a team using ESO’s unique planet-hunting HARPS instrument. The new world is now the second-closest temperate planet to be detected after Proxima b. It is also the closest planet to be discovered orbiting an inactive red dwarf star, which may increase the likelihood that this planet could potentially sustain life. Ross 128 b will be a prime target for ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope, which will be able to search for biomarkers in the planet’s atmosphere.ESO/M. Kornmesser
ESO/M. Kornmesser

How’s the atmosphere on Ross 128?

Scientists in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics say they’re not sure about Ross 128’s atmosphere at this time. It could be Earth-like, with water and even oxygen. Or it could be more like Venus, full of poisons.

How’s the weather on Ross 128?

Let’s say Ross 128 does have an Earth-like atmosphere, just for the sake of argument. Given its proximity to the red dwarf star it orbits, it will receive roughly 38% more radiation than Earth does. That’s what gives it its temperate climate, which ranges between -76 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit. So, the winters will be lousy, but summers could be amazing.

What’s an average year like on Ross 128?

Short. Real short. Because of its proximity to that red dwarf, the average year on the planet lasts just 9.9 days. So, we’re probably going to have to adjust the legal age of a few things. (The average 21 year old on Earth would be 774 on Ross 128.)

Does it fall within the Goldilocks region?

That’s one of the big questions. The Goldilocks region contains planets that are warm enough for liquid water to exist on the surface. Planets that fit those criteria are both pretty rare and pretty essential for us. While Ross 128 is considered a temperate planet, astronomers say they’re still not sure if it’s capable of being habitable — and they won’t be able to find out until at least 2024, when a new, more powerful telescope comes online that can better analyze the planet.

When do we leave?

Well, we don’t have to, really. Ross 128 is so excited to meet us that it’s coming our way. The orbit has the exoplanet and its parent star moving closer to us and in the blink of a cosmic eye (that’s 79,000 Earth years, technically), it will be our nearest stellar neighbor. That gives us time to speed up our rockets (and maybe invent Star Trek’s warp drive). Ross 128, again, is 11 light years away. For the sake of context, the moon — currently reachable by way of a three-day trip — is just 1.3 light seconds away.

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