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Alien life possible on nearby 'Super-Earth,' scientists announce

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 11/01/2019 Doyle Rice

© Provided by USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc. A “nearby” Super-Earth planet has the potential for life to develop, astronomers announced Thursday. 

Scientists said that if water exists on the planet, geothermal heating could create a subsurface ocean where primitive life might exist. The planet orbits Barnard’s Star, which is the second-nearest star system to the Earth.

The planet – known as Barnard b – is admittedly a bit on the nippy side at 274 degrees below zero. This means the planet would be ice-covered. But underneath the ice could be water “that provides niches for life," according to Villanova University astrophysicists Edward Guinan and Scott Engle. 

The researchers' findings were presented Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle.

The planet was discovered only two months ago. 

Warmth from the planet's hot core could cause life to form in the planet's oceans, which would be underneath its ice-covered surface.

"We note that the surface temperature on Jupiter's icy moon Europa is similar to Barnard b, but because of tidal heating, Europa probably has liquid oceans under its icy surface," he said.

Super-Earths are planets with masses larger than the Earth but not as big as the ice giants in our solar system, such as Neptune and Uranus.

The planet and its star are nearby in cosmic terms only: At 30 trillion miles from Earth, Barnard's Star is the closest single star to our solar system. It's a barren, frigid world because light from Barnard's Star provides it with only 2 percent of the energy the Earth receives from the sun.

Guinan said telescopes will need to continue peering at the planet. "Such observations will shed light on the nature of the planet's atmosphere, surface and potential habitability," he added.

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