Using its planet-hunting High-Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument, the European Southern Observatory in Chile has discovered an Earth-sized planet orbiting a Red Dwarf Star called Ross 128 residing just 11 Light Years away from Earth. The planet, designated Ross 128 b, has a good chance of being the home of extraterrestrial life due to the distance it orbits its home star,

The planet orbits Ross 128 every 9.9 days

The ESO notes that Ross 128 b orbits its home star every 9.9 days. Because Rose 128 puts out such little irradiation, sciences estimate that the planet’s temperature is between -60 to 20 degrees C.

However scientists are uncertain at present whether the planet is inside or on the outer edge of the habitable zone, the area where liquid water could be expected. However, Ross 128, unlike many red dwarfs, is a quiet star in that it does not emit periodic flares that would bathe its planets in harmful ultraviolet and x-ray radiation.

What happens next?

The next step will be to examine Ross 128 b to study the chemical composition of its atmosphere. If the atmosphere of its planet has oxygen and other biomarkers it will be more likely to contain life.

Thus far, scientists do not have the tools to study the atmospheres of planets. That situation is slated to change in the next few years. The Europeans are constructing the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) that will be the largest observatory of its kind on the planet, with an over 39-meter segmented mirror.

The ELT will be able to gather 13 times more light than the largest existing telescope and will be about to adjust for distortion caused by the atmosphere. The telescope will 256 times more light gathering capacity than the Hubble and will be able to create images that will 16 times those of the iconic space telescope. The ELT is slated to be operational in 2024.

However, the James Webb Space Telescope, which will conduct infrared astronomy, is scheduled to be launch in 2019 and thus will be operational before the ELT. While the JWST will not have the light gathering capacity of the ELT, one of its primary missions will be to characterize the atmospheres of exoplanets like Ross 128 b.

Astronomers using instruments such as the Kepler Space Telescope have discovered thousands of exoplanets, a handful of which are Earth-size or near Earth-size and reside in the habitable zones of their home stars, where the temperature is just right for liquid water. Studying the atmospheres of these potential other Earths is the next step in the quest to discover life beyond Earth.