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Astronomers detect atmosphere around Super-Earth

 An international team of astronomers, led by Keele University researcher John Southworth, has managed to detect an atmosphere around GJ 1132b, a ‘super-Earth’ exoplanet in the constellation Vela, 39.3 light-years from us.

GJ 1132b (Gliese 1132b) orbits the red dwarf star GJ 1132, which is only 1/5 the size of our Sun and is cooler and much fainter than the Sun, emitting just 1/200th as much light. Using the 2.2 m telescope of the European Southern Observatory in Chile to take images of the planet's host star, the team was able to measure the starlight absorbed by the planet and its atmosphere.

"While this is not the detection of life on another planet, it's an important step in the right direction: the detection of an atmosphere around the super-Earth GJ 1132b marks the first time that an atmosphere has been detected around an Earth-like planet other than Earth itself,” as Dr Southworth explains.

Astronomers' current strategy for finding life on another planet is to detect the chemical composition of that planet's atmosphere, on the look-out for chemical imbalances which could be caused by living organisms. In the case of our own Earth, the presence of large amounts of oxygen is a tell-tale sign of life. Until these findings by Dr Southworth’s team, the only previous detections of exoplanet atmospheres all involved gas giants reminiscent of a high-temperature Jupiter.

Dr Southworth says that whilst we're still a long way from detecting life on exoplanets, this discovery is the first step:

“With this research, we have taken the first tentative step into studying the atmospheres of smaller, Earth-like, planets. We simulated a range of possible atmospheres for this planet, finding that those rich in water and/or methane would explain the observations of GJ 1132b. The planet is significantly hotter and a bit larger than Earth, so one possibility is that it is a "water world" with an atmosphere of hot steam.”

The astronomers used the GROND imager at the 2.2 m ESO/MPG telescope in Chile to observe the planet simultaneously at seven different wavelength bands spanning the optical and near-infrared. As GJ 1132b is a transiting planet, it passes directly between Earth and its host star every 1.6 days, blocking a small fraction of the star's light.

From the amount of light lost, astronomers can deduce the planet's size - in this case only 1.4 times that of Earth. Crucially, the new observations showed the planet to be larger in one of the seven wavelength bands. This suggests the presence of an atmosphere that is opaque to this specific light (making the planet appear larger), but transparent to all the others.

Read: Seven earth-like planets discovered orbiting cool Trappist

The discovery of this atmosphere is encouraging. Very low-mass stars are extremely common (much more so that Sun-like stars), and are known to host lots of small planets. But they also show a lot of magnetic activity, causing high levels of X-rays and ultraviolet light to be produced which might completely evaporate the planets' atmospheres.

However, the properties of GJ 1132b show that an atmosphere can endure this for billion of years without being destroyed. Given the huge number of very low-mass stars and planets, this could mean that the conditions suitable for life are common in the Universe.

This discovery makes GJ 1132b one of the highest-priority targets for further study by the current top facilities, such as the Hubble Space Telescope and ESO's Very Large Telescope, as well as the James Webb Space Telescope which is slated for launch in 2018.

The team, led by John Southworth (Keele University), included Luigi Mancini (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy [MPIA], Universita die Roma Tor Vergata), Nikku Madhusudhan (University of Cambridge), Paul Mollière (MPIA), Simona Ciceri (Stockholm University), and Thomas Henning (MPIA).

Image: Artist's impression of an exoplanet in transition (Wikimedia/ Devon1980)

Source: Keele University