Researchers at Harvard University are excited about what may be the biggest discovery yet made in the field of exoplanets, with University of Maryland astronomer Drake Deming calling it "arguably the most important planet ever found outside the solar system."
The planet, simply labeled GJ 1132bm, was found by the Harvard team, using the MEarth-South Observatory, located in the mountains of Chile. It is a rocky world with a diameter only 20% larger than that of Earth’s, in orbit around a red dwarf star called Gliese 1132. While it is doubtful that this planet is home to any lifeforms — it is 25 times closer to it’s star than Mercury is to the Sun — GJ 1132bm’s importance comes from it’s proximity to Earth: at only 39 light-years away, it is three times closer to us than any other rocky exoplanet.
This close proximity may allow astronomers to be able to observe the planet directly with sensitive optical telescopes, including the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, due to be launched in 2018, as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Through this, researchers should be able to determine specific details, such as the composition of the planet’s atmosphere, the speed of it’s winds, and even possibly the color of it’s sunsets.
Because of GJ 1132bm’s close proximity to it’s own star, it completes it’s orbit once every 1.6 days — a very fast year. It is also assumed to be in tidal lock with Gliese 1132, meaning that it always has one side facing it’s sun, the same way the Moon always has one side facing Earth. It’s estimated that the temperature at it’s cloud tops is 500ºF (260ºC), with the underlying atmosphere being hotter than that of Venus. Despite this, researchers hope to glean valuable details from future observations, and use that as a guide for the discovery of future exoplanets.