MIT, Harvard Scientists Discover Earth-Sized New Planet Orbiting Nearby Star

Our new neighbor is 'burnt-cookie hot.'

Image by Dana Berry

Image by Dana Berry

It’s that old story of two old rivals overcoming their differences to discover a new Earth-sized exoplanet. Classic.

Astrophysicists at MIT have discovered a hot, rocky planet orbiting a small, nearby star, and named it GJ 1132b. At 39 light-years away, GJ 1132b is the closest Earth-sized exoplanet discovered to date. The discovery was published in the scientific journal Nature on Wednesday.

Thankfully, MIT put this all in Star Wars terms for us laypeople to understand, calling it “the polar opposite of frigid Hoth, and even more inhospitable than the deserts of Tatooine.” Got that?

“If we find this pretty hot planet has managed to hang onto its atmosphere over the billions of years it’s been around, that bodes well for the long-term goal of studying cooler planets that could have life,” Zachory Berta-Thompson, a postdoc in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, said in a release. “We finally have a target to point our telescopes at, and [can] dig much deeper into the workings of a rocky exoplanet, and what makes it tick.”

At roughly 500 degrees Fahrenheit, GJ 1132b is too hot for liquid water to sustain life as we know it. Scientists also suspect GJ 1132b is tidally locked, meaning it has permanent day on the side facing its star, and permanent night on the other.

“The temperature of the planet is about as hot as your oven will go, so it’s like burnt-cookie hot,” Berta-Thompson said. “It’s too hot to be habitable—there’s no way there’s liquid water on the surface. But it is a lot cooler than the other rocky planets that we know of.”

Berta-Thompson and his colleagues at MIT discovered GJ 1132b using the MEarth-South Observatory, a Harvard-led array of robotic telescopes situated in the Chilean desert. The two Cambridge schools have led the search for life on our nearby exoplanets.

Both the Hubble Telescope and its successor launching in 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope, will closely study GJ 1132b, from the chemical composition of its atmosphere to the pattern of its scorching-hot winds.