Two Earth-sized planets have been found orbiting a star 12.5 light-years from our own, adding to the catalogue of exoplanets located in our own cosmic back yard.
The star in question is Teegarden’s Star, a M-type red dwarf, the most common type of star in our galaxy, and therefore the most frequent type found to have planets and planetary systems. However, Teegarden’s Star is a little different to other red dwarfs we’ve observed with or without planets. For a start, despite being only a short cosmic stone’s throw from Earth, it is incredibly dim – so dim that we didn’t even notice it until 2003. Not that that in itself is usual, it’s believed that the space around us for a distance of about 20 light years could have many dim red dwarf stars hiding within it, simply because this region of our galaxy seems to have a much lower density of such stars than we see elsewhere.
What makes Teegarden’s Star odd in this respect is that it wasn’t found as a result of a search for such nearby dim red dwarfs, but because astronomers tripped over it whilst reviewing data originally gathered in the 1990s by the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) project. In fact, the star is actually named for the head of the review team, Bonnard J. Teegarden, an astrophysicist at NASA‘s Goddard Space Flight Centre. The star is also somewhat unusual in that it has a large proper motion (approximately 5 arcseconds per year), marking it as one of seven stars with such large proper motions currently known.
Observations of the star made in 2010 by the Red Optical Planet Survey (ROPS) suggested the star might have at least one planet orbiting it, but the data was insufficient to draw a definitive conclusion. However, in June 2019, and after three years of verifying their data, scientists conducting the CARMENES survey at the Calar Alto Observatory announced evidence of two Earth-mass exoplanets orbiting the star within its habitable zone.
The planets were detected using the radial velocity method (aka Doppler spectroscopy), also informally referred to as the “wobble method”. Putting it simply, a star with planets doesn’t simply spin on its axis with the planets whizzing around it. Rather, the mass of the planet(s) works against the mass of the star, creating a common centre of mass which, although still inside the star, is sufficiently removed from its own centre to cause the star to effectively rolls around it (see the image on the right).
This means that when seen from Earth, there are times when the star can seem as if it is moving “away” from our telescopes, signified by its light shifting to the red end of the spectrum. Equally, there are other times when it appears to be moving “towards” us, signified by its light shifting to the blue end of the spectrum. It is by observing and measuring this visible Doppler shift that tells us there are planets present. In all, this method of stellar observation has accounted for almost one-third of all exoplanets found to date.
The key point with this method of observation is not only does it allow astronomers to locate planets orbiting other stars, it actually allows maths to be applied, allowing the number of potential planets to be discerned, their distance from their parent star and important factors such as their probable mass, which in turn allows their likely size and composition to be estimated.
In the case of Teegarden’s Star, the data indicates the two planets orbiting the star – called Teegarden’s b and Teegarden’s c respectively – have a mass of around 1.05 and 1.1 that of Earth each, suggesting they are probably around the same size as one another and comparable to Earth in size. Teegarden’s b, the innermost planet, orbits its parent every 4.9 terrestrial days, and Teegarden’s c every 11.4 terrestrial days.
The combined mass of these planets, coupled with the amount of Doppler shift exhibited by Teegarden’s Star has led to some speculation there may be other, larger planets orbiting much further out from the star. Such planets would be hard to locate because Teegarden’s Star is so dim when observed from Earth, astronomers cannot rely on the transit method – where large planets passing in front of their parent star can cause regular dips in its apparent brightness – to identify their existence.
However, what is particularly interesting about Teegarden’s b and c is their location relative to their parent, and the nature of Teegarden’s Star itself. The latter is a particularly cool and low-mass red dwarf, with just one-tenth of the Sun’s mass and a surface temperature of 2,700°C (4890°F). This means that at their respective distances, both planets are within the star’s habitable zone – and may well have atmospheres.
The two planets resemble the inner planets of our solar system. They are only slightly heavier than Earth and are located in the so-called habitable zone, where water can be present in liquid form.
– Mathias Zechmeister, University of Göttingen, Teegarden planetary team lead
This latter point – the existence of atmospheres around both planets – has yet to be proven. As noted previously in these articles, M-type stars are actually not nice places; when active (and Teegarden does seem to be well past its active stage) in their youth, they can be prone to violent irradiative outbursts which could both strip away the atmospheres of any planets orbiting them over time and irradiate the planets’ surfaces. And even if the planets do have atmospheres, their close proximity to their parent likely means they are both tidally locked with their same face towards it. This is liable to make them pretty inhospitable places and potentially prone to extremes of weather.
But there is one other interesting point to note here. While Teegarden’s Star may well be dim to the point of being practically invisible when viewed from Earth, the same isn’t true the other way around: our Sun would be a bright star in the skies over Teegarden’s b and c. What’s more, the angle of our solar system to those worlds (practically edge-on) means that if we were to imagine one of them having an intelligent, scientific race, they could easily detect the planets orbiting our Sun using the transit method of observation, and could probably deduce up to three of the innermost planets might be capable of supporting life.
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