Astronomers at England's Keele University have detected an atmosphere around GJ 1132b, a super-Earth exoplanet orbiting a red dwarf star located 39 light years from Earth.
Researchers measured the atmosphere's presence by analyzing subtle shifts in stellar light as the alien world traversed the face of the red dwarf. Astronomers studied data collected by the European Southern Observatory's 2.2 m ESO/MPG telescope and its GROND imager.
"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," researcher John Southworth said in a news release.
Until now, scientists had only directly detected the atmospheres of gas giant-like exoplanets. Though scientists can't yet nail down the exact chemical composition, there's a possibility the atmosphere is one friendly to life.
"We simulated a range of possible atmospheres for this planet, finding that those rich in water and/or methane would explain the observations of GJ 1132b, the planet is significantly hotter and a bit larger than Earth, so one possibility is that it is a 'water world' with an atmosphere of hot steam." Southworth said.
GJ 1132b's host star, Gliese 1132, is a low-mass star, a common stellar class known to host Earth-sized planets. Low-mass stars often feature intense electromagnetic activity, including flares and radiation that can burn away the atmospheres of resident exoplanets.
The discovery suggests Earth-like planets can hold onto their atmospheres in red dwarf systems. The findings, detailed in the Astronomical Journal, suggests conditions suitable for life may be more common than previously thought.
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