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By Andrew Follett
Scientists have found an Earth-like planet with an atmosphere for the first time.
The planet, GJ 1132b, is cloaked in a thick layer of gases composed of water, methane or a mixture of both, new research found. The exoplanet is 1.4-times the size of Earth and 39 light years away. Researchers observed how light from GJ 1132b’s host star interacted with the planet’s atmosphere as it passed by the sun.
“It makes the star look a little bit fainter — and it’s actually a very good way of finding transiting planets — it’s how this one was found,” Dr. John Southworth, a researcher from Keele University who helped identify the atmosphere, told BBC News.
“What we have shown is that planets around low mass stars can have atmospheres and because there are so many of those in the Universe, it makes it that much more likely that one might have life,” Southworth said.
The discovery could be an important step forward in the hunt for life beyond our solar system. It is highly unlikely, however, that GJ 1132b is habitable, since its surface temperature is 370 degrees Celsius.
“To my knowledge the hottest temperature that life has been able to survive on Earth is 120C, and that’s far cooler than this planet,” Southworth said.
NASA announced in May the Kepler Space Telescope found 1,284 new exoplanets, or planets, outside our solar system. Roughly 550 of those exoplanets could be rocky planets, like Earth, based on their size. Nine of these exoplanets orbit in their stars’ “Goldilocks Zones.”
Some exoplanets closely resemble Earth and could be good places to search for alien life.
European astronomers identified a planet very similar to Earth in August, around the star Proxima Centauri. Scientists don’t currently know if the planet, called “Proxima b,” has an atmosphere or possesses a magnetosphere, but there’s already a lot speculation about the possibility of life there.