Astronomers have detected an atmosphere around the super Earth-like planet GJ 1132b, a discovery which could help pave the way to finding life outside our solar system.
A team of researchers led by Dr. John Southworth of Keele University in the U.K. used the ESO/MPG telescope in Chile to capture images of the planet’s host star, GJ 1132. By measuring the slight decrease in brightness as the plant passed in front of the star, they noted that GJ 1132b and its atmosphere absorbed some of GJ 1132’s starlight.
“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,” Southworth explained, in a statement.
Prior to this research, the only previous examples of exoplanet atmospheres involved “gas giant” planets reminiscent of Jupiter and Saturn.
GJ 1132b is located 39-light-years from Earth.
A light year, which measures distance in space, equals 6 trillion miles. By way of comparison, the recently-discovered Earth-like planet Proxima b, which orbits the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, is about 4-light-years from Earth.
The study to identify GJ 1132b’s atmosphere has been published in the Astronomical Journal.
The discovery makes the planet “one of the highest priority targets” for further study by space research facilities such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the ESO’s Very Large Telescope, as well as the James Webb Space Telescope, according to the research team. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope launches next year.
Southworth told Fox News that GJ 1132b has already been observed by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Very Large Telescope. "I look forward to the results from these studies - which I am not personally involved in - which will further increase our understanding of this planet," he explained, via email. "It looks like several groups have been studying this planet, which is turning out to be very popular!"
In addition to Southworth, experts from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, the University of Cambridge, the University of Rome Tor Vergata and Stockholm University participated in the research.
Earlier this year an international team of astronomers found 60 new planets orbiting stars close to Earth’s solar system, including a rocky “super Earth.” The experts also found evidence of an additional 54 planets, bringing the potential discovery of new worlds to 114.