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FutureStarrA Future of Barnard's Star
In a study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, astronomers identify a super-Earth sized planet orbiting just beyond the habitable zone of Barnard's Star, the fourth-nearest individual star to the Sun. This discovery not only challenges current theories of planet formation, but could make Barnard's Star an attractive target for an Earth-like world.
For example, even as long ago as the 1960s and ’70s – long before successful planet-hunters like the Kepler spacecraft – there were suggestions that Barnard’s Star might have a family of planets. At that time, reported discrepancies in the motion of the star led to a claim that at least one Jupiter-size planet, and possibly several planets, orbit it. Although the evidence was disputed and the claim now largely discredited, there has remained a chance of planetary discoveries. And, indeed, in November 2018 an international team of astronomers announced it was “99 percent confident” that a planet for Barnard’s Star has now been found.
For a decade from 1963 to about 1973, a substantial number of astronomers accepted a claim by Peter van de Kamp that he had detected, by using astrometry, a perturbation in the proper motion of Barnard's Star consistent with its having one or more planets comparable in mass with Jupiter. Van de Kamp had been observing the star from 1938, attempting, with colleagues at the Sproul Observatory at Swarthmore College, to find minuscule variations of one micrometre in its position on photographic plates consistent with orbital perturbations that would indicate a planetary companion; this involved as many as ten people averaging their results in looking at plates, to avoid systemic individual errors. (Source: en.wikipedia.org)
Night by night, star by star, astronomers are edging ever closer to learning just how crowded our universe really is—or at least our galaxy, anyway. A quarter century after the first exoplanets were found orbiting other stars, statistics from the thousands now known have revealed that, on average, each and every stellar denizen of the Milky Way must be accompanied by at least one world. Look long and hard enough for a planet around any given star in our galaxy and you are practically guaranteed to find something sooner or later.
But even a crowded universe can be a lonely place. Our planet-rich Milky Way may prove to be life-poor. Of all the galaxy’s known worlds, only a figurative handful resemble Earth in size and orbit—each occupying a nebulous “Goldilocks” region of just-rightness—a fairy-tale-simple ideal in which a world is neither too big nor too small, neither too hot nor too cold, to sustain liquid water and life on its surface. Instead, most of the Milky Way’s planets are worlds theorists failed to predict and have yet to fit comfortably in any conception of habitability: “super-Earths” bigger than our familiar planet but smaller than Neptune. No super-Earths twirl around our sun for solar system–bound scientists to directly study, making it that much harder to know whether any elsewhere are Goldilocks worlds—or, for that matter, whether any one-size-fits-all metric of habitability is hopelessly naive. (Source: www.scientificamerican.com)