By Sophia Rodgers.
Astronomers from the University of Hertfordshire have recently confirmed the existence of a new frozen planet, known as a ‘super-Earth’, which orbits Barnard’s Star and has a minimum of 3.2 Earth masses.
A red dwarf, Barnard’s Star is older and smaller than our Sun, and just behind Alpha Centauri, which is 4.37 light years away, is the closest star to it. Barnard’s Star was discovered in 1916 and is six light years away from our Sun, and has captured the interest of authors, filmmakers and gaming developers alike, as a promising location for an orbiting planet. It is also the fastest-moving star in our sky, crossing the entire moon in just 174 years.
This new planet’s existence has now been proven by a team of researchers internationally, including specialists from the University of Hertfordshire. It has been named ‘Barnard’s Star B’, and orbits Barnard’s Star every 233 days and the discovery has been announced to citizens of this planet in the journal ‘Nature’.
Hugh Jones, a professor from the University of Hertfordshire, and a co-author of the paper has said:
“The announcement of the planet has been a long time in the making; initial observations of the planet were made by Dr Paul Butler at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in June 1997. My colleague Dr Mikko Tuomi had discovered the planet’s fingerprints in archival data in 2015 and we first submitted a scientific paper presenting the planet’s existence back in March 2017. However, we didn’t have enough evidence to conclusively support such a major discovery.”
On account of the initial detection of ‘Barnard’s Star B’, an international effort named the ‘Red Dots Collaboration’ – led by Guillem Anglada-Escude at the Queen Mary University of London, formerly based at the University of Hertfordshire – has been observing Barnard’s Star with specialist equipment to investigate the signal.
The measurements gathered suggested that Barnard’s Star is both approaching, and moving away from us, at about walking speed – and is best explained by a planet, Barnard’s Star B, orbiting it.
Co-author Dr Fabo Feng comments: “These major observing campaigns gave us enough observations to confirm the planetary signal with several independent datasets and with the variety of different signal analysis tools that we had built at the University of Hertfordshire.”
For much of human history, it has been understood that the positions of the stars were fixed, however, to modern astronomers, Barnard’s Star is essentially zipping across the sky.
Dr Mikko Tuomi, who originally discovered the planet, said: “The ability to directly image a planet greatly increases our ability to understand its characteristics and increase the potential for possible exploration in future, helping astronomers discover more about the planets that lie beyond our solar system.”