Recently discovered super-Earths could ‘potentially host life’

This illustration shows what the planets of Gliese 887 might look like.

Mark Garlick

We have a new discovery in the quest to determine whether we’re alone in the universe. A team of astronomers involved in the planet-hunting Red Dots campaign have found two especially intriguing super-Earths around the relatively nearby star Gliese 887.

Super-Earths are planets with a mass higher than Earth’s, but a lot less than that of ice giants Uranus and Neptune. The exoplanets (planets located outside of our solar system) are called Gliese 887b and Gliese 887c. They have very short orbits around their host star, which is positioned a cozy 11 light-years away from us. 

Astronomer Sandra Jeffers of the University of Gottingen in Germany is the lead author of a study on the exoplanets published in the journal Science on Thursday.

Besides being cosmically close, these super-Earths are exciting for several reasons. For starters, they’re located near their star’s habitable zone, an area where liquid water could exist. Next, they could be rocky planets, like Earth and Mars.

What’s even better is that Gliese 887 is pretty calm for a red dwarf star. Though dimmer than our own sun, red dwarfs are notorious for blasting out energetic flares that can shred a planet’s atmosphere. Gliese 887 is not very active. “This means that the newly discovered planets may retain their atmospheres, or have thicker atmospheres than the Earth, and potentially host life,” the University of Gottingen said in a release on Thursday.

There are a lot of maybes here, but these exoplanets have plenty of potential. The research suggests they could be good targets for NASA’s much-delayed next-generation James Webb Space Telescope once it launches. The telescope may be able to tell us if the Gliese 887 planets do indeed have atmospheres. 

“These planets will provide the best possibilities for more detailed studies, including the search for life outside our solar system,” Jeffers said. The only disappointing news is that 11 light-years is still too far away for us to go for a visit.