The recently discovered cold super-Earth exoplanet orbiting around the red dwarf Barnard -- the second closest star system to Earth -- has the potential to harbour primitive life, says a study. Barnard b (or GJ 699 b) is a super-Earth with a minimum of 3.2 Earth masses. It orbits its red star every 233 days near the snow-line, a distance where water freezes. Although likely cold (-170 degrees centigrade), it could still have the potential to harbour primitive life if it has a large, hot iron or nickel core and enhanced geothermal activity, said researchers from the Villanova University in the US.
"Geothermal heating could support 'life zones' under its surface, akin to subsurface lakes found in Antarctica," said Edward Guinan, Astrophysicist at the varsity. "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," Guinan added. The results were announced at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomy Society (AAS) in Seattle. Although very faint, it may be possible for Barnard b to be imaged by future very large telescopes, according to Guinan.
"Such observations will shed light on the nature of the planet's atmosphere, surface, and potential habitability," he said. The most significant aspect of the discovery of Barnard's star b is that the two nearest star systems to the Sun are now known to host planets. "This supports previous studies based on Kepler Mission data, inferring that planets can be very common throughout the galaxy, even numbering in the tens of billions," said co-author Scott Engle from the varsity. "Also, Barnard's Star is about twice as old as the Sun -- about nine billion years old compared to 4.6 billion years for the Sun. The universe has been producing Earth-size planets far longer than we, or even the Sun itself, have existed."
(With inputs from agencies.)