Astronomers have found signs of a planet that may have a life-supporting atmosphere, according to a study published Thursday.
The study, published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, focuses on a planetary system named after the star it orbits, L 98-59, according to a press release. Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, the team of astronomers found a rocky planet with half the mass of Venus, as well as an ocean world in the solar system 35 light-years away.
Astronomers also found hints that there is a fifth planet in the “habitable zone,” an orbital sweet spot from a star that’s not too hot and not too cold, with the possibility of liquid water on its surface.
“This system announces what is to come,” Olivier Demangeon, a researcher at the Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço of the University of Porto in Portugal and lead author of the new study, said in the press release. “We, as a society, have been chasing terrestrial planets since the birth of astronomy, and now we are finally getting closer and closer to the detection of a terrestrial planet in the habitable zone of its star, of which we could study the atmosphere.”
While the discovery is significant, telescopes don’t have the resolution to detect biosignatures on the small, rocky planet, according to the press release.
The study is also significant because astronomers were able to determine using the radial velocity method that the system’s innermost planet is half the mass of Venus. This is the lightest planet outside the solar system measured using the technique, which calculates the wobble of the star caused by the gravitational tug of its orbiting planets.
“These results represent an important achievement in the quest for life outside the solar system,” the study reads. “However, it is important to keep pushing toward smaller masses and longer periods to ensure our capacity to measure the mass of a transiting Earth analog in the habitable zone of a bright host star.”
Recently, scientists have been looking to Earth’s solar system for extraterrestrial life. Scientific American reported last month that researchers were looking for signs of life on the icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter.
Theoretical astrophysicist Avi Loeb also launched a philanthropy-backed effort to look into evidence of the presence of alien spaceships or satellites in our solar system in response to an unusual object by the sun and Earth, Science magazine reported.