Scientists have spotted a new planet that’s both a dead ringer for our own and resides just around the cosmic corner from our part of the galaxy.
USA TODAY

Scientists have spotted a new planet that’s both a dead ringer for our own and resides just around the cosmic corner from our part of the galaxy.

The planet’s proximity and uncanny resemblance to Earth make it “arguably the most important planet ever found outside the solar system,” the University of Maryland’s Drake Deming wrote in a commentary accompanying the scientific report about the discovery.

Dubbed GJ 1132b, it is slightly wider and more massive than Earth. Its composition is similar to Earth’s, and it lies only 39 light-years, or 230 trillion miles, away, which isn’t very far compared to the unfathomable spread of the universe. Other Earth-sized planets are more than three times as distant as this one and therefore much harder to get to know.

If planets outside the solar system, also known as exoplanets, were houses, this one “is not the house right next to yours,” said Boston University astronomer Philip Muirhead, who wasn’t involved in the study. “But it’s on the other side of the block.”

And if planet GJ 1132b were a house, it would almost certainly be vacant. The coolest part of its atmosphere measures a scorching 450 to 500 degrees, akin to “the hottest temperature your oven will go,” said study author Zachory Berta-Thompson of MIT. “It’s definitely a very toasty world” and probably too warm to support life.

But it’s not too toasty to have an atmosphere. Most Earth-sized planets outside our solar system are so hellishly hot that no atmosphere could survive there, but GJ 1132b may very well have a wrapper of the same gases that swaddle the Earth, Berta-Thompson and his colleagues wrote in this week’s Nature.

That possibility has scientists rubbing their hands in anticipation over what they could learn from this small world, discovered with a network of small telescopes known as MEarth-South. GJ 1132b is close enough for the Hubble Space Telescope and its successor, now under development, to have a good look at its atmosphere, helping researchers pinpoint the varieties of planetary atmosphere hospitable to living things.

Other exoplanets live closer to us than GJ 1132b, but this one is a golden combination of very close and very similar in size to Earth. Adding to its charms, it circles a relatively small, faint star called a red dwarf. A planet orbiting such a modest star is easier to study than a planet orbiting a brilliant star.

Planets around red dwarfs are plentiful, and in our galaxy, red dwarfs themselves far outnumber stars like the sun. So GJ 1132b may well be an easily accessible example of one of the most common kinds of planets, Muirhead says.

“This is not the first time we’ve caught glimpses of things that look like this,” said John Asher Johnson of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who was not involved with the discovery. “But this is a rare opportunity to hold the real deal in our hands and turn it over and examine it.”

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