One of Our Closest Neighboring Stars Have a Super-Earth Capable of Supporting Life

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One of Our Closest Neighboring Stars May Have a Super-Earth Capable of Supporting Life

Though you might not have heard of it, Barnard's Star is something of a celebrity among fans of science and sci-fi—apart from being one of the closest stars to Earth (at a distance of only 6 light-years away), it's been mentioned in everything from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to tabletop games. It's also one of the few "runaway" stars, which drift across the Milky Way against the flow of other star systems. Now, a team of researchers has proposed that a newly discovered planet orbiting the star may host primitive life.

At the recent American Astronomical Society conference, a team from Villanova University outlined the case that Barnard's Star b, a planet about three times the mass of Earth, possesses the right conditions for life beneath its surface, most likely in "subsurface lakes," similar to those found in Antarctica. The planet orbits Barnard's Star at about the same distance as Mercury to our own Sun, but because Barnard's Star is a dim red dwarf, the planet is not a hothouse. Instead, it's estimated to be about -254 degrees Fahrenheit on its surface. In addition, its orbit straddles an important boundary, beyond which any water on it would turn to ice, but the team from Villanova has proposed it might have a hot core like Earth, which could heat the planet from the inside.

That inner warmth could provide the right conditions to incubate life. According to Edward Guinan, one of the authors of the new study: "Geothermal heating could support 'life zones' under its surface, akin to subsurface lakes found in Antarctica. 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."

Even if Barnard's Star b doesn't hold life beneath its surface, Scott Engle, another of the study's authors, pointed out that its mere existence is a heartening discovery, one that suggests there might be tens of billions of planets in our galaxy. "Also," he says, "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."

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