Nearby planet could be most important outside our solar system

A rocky planet 1.2 times the size of Earth orbiting a nearby red dwarf star is being hailed by astrophysicists as one of the most important exoplanet discoveries made so far.

The planet, named GJ 1132b, is “just” 39 light years away in the constellation of Vela. That is close enough for us to be able to observe its atmosphere with the Hubble Space Telescope or the The James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in 2018.

“If we find this pretty hot planet has managed to hang onto its atmosphere over the billions of years it’s been around, that bodes well for the long-term goal of studying cooler planets that could have life,” says Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Zachory Berta-Thompson, who discovered the planet.

He and his colleagues reported their findings in the journal Nature.

With surface temperatures of 260 °C, planet GJ 1132b is too hot for life itself.  It has a diameter of about 14,800 kilometres, slightly bigger than Earth, and a mass thought to be 60% greater than Earth’s.

Its home star — GJ 1132 — is a red dwarf one-fifth the size of the Sun. The planet circles every 1.6 days, just 2.25 million kilometres away.

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