The newly discovered "super-Earth" planet Gliese 486 b may hold the key to discovering alien life. The planet has scientists excited for the future of exoplanetology as detailed in a new study. Gliese 486 b is located relatively close to Earth, orbiting a red dwarf star that is considerably smaller than our sun. The rocky, Earth-like planet may hold the key to finding extraterrestrial life, but it itself is inhospitable, and is compared to the hot and dry conditions on Venus, "with possible rivers of lava flowing on its surface."
Astrophysicist and study co-author José Caballero of Centro de Astrobiología in Spain notes, "We say that Gliese 486 b will instantaneously become the Rosetta Stone of exoplanetology - at least for Earth-like planets," referring to the ancient stone that helped decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. While Gliese 486 b is not hospitable with temperatures going as high as 800 degrees Fahrenheit, it is close enough to Earth for scientists to explore the atmosphere, which could aid the hunt for alien life.
Gliese 486 b is 26.3 light years (5.9 trillion miles) from Earth. And while that seems really far away, it is actually one of the closest exoplanets to Earth. Scientists have discovered over 4,300 exoplanets over the years, ranging from gas giants like Jupiter to small rocky, Earth-like planets. However, most of them are too far away to study their atmospheres. "The exoplanet must have the right physical and orbital configuration to be suitable for atmospheric investigation," said planetary scientist Trifon Trifonov of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, lead author of the research published in the journal Science.
Gliese 486 b could be the perfect candidate for researching exoplanet atmosphere. The planet is larger than Earth, but is still considerably smaller than other planets in our solar system. The red dwarf that it orbits is smaller than our sun and less luminous. However, Gliese 486 b is a lot closer to its star than we are to the sun. "Gliese 486 b cannot be habitable, at least not the way we know it here on Earth," Trifon Trifonov said. "The planet possibly only has a tenuous atmosphere, if any. Our models are consistent with both scenarios because stellar irradiation tends to evaporate atmospheres, whereas, at the same time, the planetary gravity is strong enough to retain it."
The chemical makeup of a planet's atmosphere can tell a lot about its possible habitability. "All that we learn with the atmosphere of Gliese 486 b and other Earth-like planets will be applied, within a few decades, to the detection of biomarkers or biosignatures: spectral features on the atmospheres of exoplanets that can only be ascribed to extraterrestrial life," José Caballero says. While it's going to be a while before scientists learn everything about Gliese 486 b, it sounds like it will help studying outer space as a whole. Reuters was one of the first outlets to report on Gliese 486 b and its possible connections to alien life.