A rocky planet discovered in the Virgo constellation is an astronomer’s dream.

By UNIVERSITY OF NEW SOUTH WALES

Artist’s impression of the surface of Gliese 486b. Credit: enderArea

A newly discovered planet could be our best chance yet of studying rocky planet atmospheres outside the solar system, a new international study involving UNSW Sydney shows.

The planet, called Gliese 486b (pronounced Glee-seh), is a ‘super-Earth’: that is, a rocky planet bigger than Earth but smaller than ice giants like Neptune and Uranus. It orbits a red dwarf star around 26 light-years away, making it a close neighbor – galactically speaking.

With a piping-hot surface temperature of 430 degrees Celsius, Gliese 486b is too hot to support human life.

But studying its atmosphere could help us learn whether similar planets might be habitable for humans – or if they’re likely to hold other signs of life.

“This is the kind of planet we’ve been dreaming about for decades,” says Dr. Ben Montet, an astronomer and Scientia Lecturer at UNSW Science and co-author of the study.

“We’ve known for a long time that rocky super-Earths must exist around the nearby stars, but we haven’t had the technology to search for them until recently. This finding has the potential to transform our understanding of planetary atmospheres.”

Artistic impression of Super-Earth Gliese 486b and its nearby red dwarf star. Credit: RenderArea

Like Earth, Gliese 486b is a rocky planet – but that’s where the similarities end. 

Our neighbor is 30 percent bigger and almost three times heavier than Earth. It’s possible that its surface – which is hot enough to melt lead – is scattered with glowing lava rivers.

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