In the constellation Vela, 39 light years away, lies a planet, almost the size of Earth, called Gliese 1132b or GJ 1132b. The planet is orbiting a dim class M red dwarf star called Gliese 1132(which is about a quarter the size of our Sun), and is the first planet found to have an atmosphere. Before now, we had observed atmosphere in other planets, but these were all very large gas giants like our Jupiter, but this exoplanet is comparable to the size of Earth with a size 1.6 times the Earth and mass 1.4 times, is the first Earth-like exoplanet to have an atmosphere, mainly of water and methane.
The planet was discovered using transit method, in which the dimming of the parent star’s brightness when a planet passes in front of its is used to predict the existence of some body revolving around it. It was first observed by the European Space Agency’s ESO/MPG telescope in Chile, a 2.2m terrestial telescope. The odd thing about planets like the Gliese 1132b is that their parent stars, which are commonly red dwarfs emit large amount of flares and radiations, which scraps off any atmosphere in the small planets revolving around it, and against our expectations and knowledge, this planet seems to break the rules.
Though we should not get our hopes high fast, because the planet’s temperature is estimated to be around 630 fahrenheit, which clearly means it cannot support life like ours. Its opacity to infrared signifies that the atmosphere is basically made of water and methane. Overall the planet is expected to be covered with water, and an atmosphere of super-hot steam. This characteristic makes it resemble more to our own hell in the solar system, the Venus. But these are what the data shows, further studies might reveal new information. Existence of atmosphere is a major requirement for development of life, which surely brings Gliese 1132b in the crosshairs of extraterrestrial life exploration. This should not be taken as a sure sign though. As in the case of its neighbours in the sister galaxy, the TRAPPIST-1 system, which showed remarkable hope for presence of extraterrestial life, and was the internet sensation for quite a time, has been shown to be harsh to support life. The very destructive solar flares from the TRAPPIST-1 star, (which are almost as strong as the worst solar storm of 1959 we faced, which if was to happen now, would destroy almost all of communication systems), repeating every 26 hours, create extreme conditions which can never support life unless the planets have one hell of a magnetosphere, almost as strong as tens and hundreds of gauss(Earth’s magnetic field is around 0.5 gauss). So lets not get our hopes very high right away.
Because of its small distance from its parent star, Gliese 1132b revolves around the star in just 1.6 days. Despite the fact that it is most probably for life like ours, the planet can provide with essential knowledge about the formation of atmosphere, and evolution of star systems, and help us understand our atmosphere too. With the launch of the James Webb Telescope in 2018 we will be able to achieve greatly improved resolution to study the planet.Happy Reading!
-The Cosmogasmic Person