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Our corner of the Milky Way is getting rather neighborly. In 2016, astronomers discovered a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our sun, just 4 light-years away. Now, they believe they have found an exoplanet around Barnard’s star, which at 6 light-years away is the second-closest star system. The planet—a chilly world more than three times heavier than Earth—is close enough that scientists could learn about its atmosphere with future giant telescopes. “This is going to be one of the best candidates,” says astronomer Nikku Madhusudhan of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who was not part of the discovery team.
Barnard’s star b, as the new planet is called, was excruciatingly difficult to pin down, and the team is referring to it as a “candidate planet” though it is confident it’s there. Most exoplanets, including the thousands identified by NASA’s recently retired Kepler space telescope, were found using the “transit” technique: looking for a periodic dip in starlight as a planet passes in front. But that method detects only the small fraction of planets that cross their star’s face when viewed from Earth. Despite decades of watching, astronomers haven’t detected any planets transiting Barnard’s star.
Astronomers - Planets - Tug - Star - Hundreds
But astronomers can also look for planets by measuring their gravitational tug on a star. Hundreds of exoplanets have been found by looking for periodic Doppler shifts in the frequency of starlight. In 2015, astronomers saw hints of such shifts in the light from Barnard’s star. “Then we went hard for it,” says astronomer Ignasi Ribas of the Institute of Space Sciences in Barcelona, Spain, who led the new project.
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His team made observations from two ground-based telescopes in Chile and Spain. They also observed with a spectrograph at...
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