'Venus twin' excites astronomers

A new, Venus-like planet has been found in our cosmic neighborhood. The exoplanet's hot surface and atmosphere has led astronomers to draw some comparisons to planets in our solar system.

MIT News Office/Dana Berry
In this artist's rendering of GJ 1132b, a rocky exoplanet very similar to Earth in size and mass, circles a red dwarf star. GJ 1132b is relatively cool (about 450 degrees F) and could potentially host an atmosphere.

Venus has a twin planet that isn’t Earth.

Astronomers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found an exoplanet – a type of planet that orbits a star that isn’t the Sun – thirty-nine light years from Earth, which makes it close enough to be easily studied.

The planet, called GJ 1132b, is hot enough that it wouldn’t be able to support life. But the exoplanet’s hot surface and rocky atmosphere has still led astronomers to draw some comparisons to a planet in our solar system.

"Our ultimate goal is to find a twin Earth, but along the way we've found a twin Venus," astronomer David Charbonneau, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), said in a Harvard press release. "We suspect it will have a Venus-like atmosphere too, and if it does we can't wait to get a whiff."

It’s 500 degrees Fahrenheit on GJ 1132b, and, like the Earth’s own moon, is tidally locked, meaning that it holds a fixed position in relation to the star that it orbits.

“A world with a permanent day side and a permanent night side is going to look very different from the terrestrial planets that we have in our solar system,” Zachory K. Berta-Thompson, who led the team that spotted the planet, told The Christian Science Monitor in a recent interview.

The astronomers discovered the exoplanet as part of a larger MIT MEarth study, which is searching for exoplanets orbiting nearby M dwarf stars. The astronomers found GJ 1132b using array observations from the MEarth South telescope, located in Chile.

“We pointed our telescope at a relatively small, relatively nearby star and we noticed a little dip in light. That dip in brightness comes from the planet passing in front of its host star as seen from Earth,” Dr. Berta-Thompson told the Monitor.

The astronomers believe that this discovery holds big potential for future scientific discoveries, and are planning continued observation of both GJ 1132b and nearby M dwarf planets in order to determine if GJ 1132b has any relatives.

“This planet is going to be a favorite target of astronomers for years to come,” Dr. Berta-Thompson said in the Harvard release.

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