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NASA Scientists are Freaking Out About a New Planet Outside Our Solar System—And for Good Reason

new planet discovered by NASAGuess what, everybody? There’s a new spacesuit for astronauts to wear when bouncing around on other planets! Remember the iconic spacesuit that Neil and Buzz wore on their historic moonwalk? Well, the new Z-2 uniform takes it into the 21st century and will become instrumental for astronauts journeying to Mars. Check out the new astronaut duds here!

It seems like every time we mention a new space or NASA story on our blog, it has something to do with Mars. Whether it’s exploring Mars for the first time with human astronauts or colonizing Mars for future generations, there’s certainly a lot to be excited about regarding the Red Planet.

But it turns out, if you listen closely, NASA scientists and other astronomers are currently freaking out about another planet located just outside our solar system. The planet lies in the constellation of Vela in the southern sky and at only 39 lightyears away, it is close enough for telescopes to observe any atmosphere it may have. Astronomers are saying this rocky Earth-sized planet could be the most important world ever found beyond the solar system.

The planet is named GJ 1132b (catchy, isn’t it?) and is about 16% larger than Earth. The alien world is three times closer than any other Earth-sized rocky planet we’ve found orbiting another star. Drake Deming, an astronomer at the University of Maryland, says GJ 1132b was “arguably the most important planet ever found outside the solar system.”

Alright, bad news first: this particular planet isn’t exactly livable. It orbits too close to a red dwarf star, causing surface temperatures to reach 260o C! (That’s 500o F if you’re wondering.)

 The searing temperatures are too hot for the surface to retain liquid water, making it inhospitable to life, but not so hot as to burn off any atmosphere that formed on the planet. The hope is that at this distance, our telescopes will be able to make out the chemistry of its atmosphere, the speed of its winds, and even the colors of its sunsets!

“If this planet still has an atmosphere, then we might find other, cooler planets that also have atmospheres and orbit small stars,” says Zachory Berta-Thompson at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “We can then imagine interrogating the atmospheres for molecules that come from life.”

Because the red dwarf is so small, and the planet is in such a close orbit, astronomers should find it fairly easy to detect and study any atmosphere the world has. According to The Guardian, the team has already requested time on the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes to observe the planet in more detail.

“It’s nearby, it’s Earth-like, and its star won’t interfere [with research],” says Drake. Due to its proximity and orbit around a red dwarf, astronomers can study the planet with unprecedented freedom. “GJ 1132b is too warm to be habitable, but scientists have yet to fully explore our cosmic neighbourhood for worlds that potentially harbour life,” he notes in an accompanying article in Nature.

It was less than 50 years ago that astronauts first stepped foot on the moon and now we’re already planning missions to Mars and exploring planets outside our own solar system. The next 50 years could see a permanent colony on the moon or Mars and (fingers crossed!) a planet outside our solar system that harbors life. Stay tuned—this is definitely one story that you don’t want to miss!

Photo credit: Dana Berry via The Guardian

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