One of the main architects of exoplanet research, the astronomer Peter van de Kamp, proposed more than 50 years ago that this star could host a planet.
Barnard's Star, a small red dwarf, has always been a prime planet-hunting target. But the methods we've used to detect a lot of them are biased toward finding large planets that orbit close to their host stars. And while it's not easily visible without a telescope, Barnard's Star has long attracted astronomer's gaze as the fastest moving star in the night sky.
In addition, the new find provides further evidence that planets are almost ubiquitous around red dwarf stars, said Ignasi Ribas, an astronomer and director of the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia in Spain, who led the work.
The planet, snappily dubbed GJ 699 b, is estimated to be 3.2 times the mass of Earth and orbits the dim red dwarf star every every 233 days.
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"Tantalisingly, super-Earths like Barnard's Star b probably sustain geothermal activity for longer than their lower mass counterparts".
The physical motion of the star is far too small to detect.
Barnard's Star b is thought to be quite cold.
"We combined archival data from other teams with new, overlapping, measurements of Barnard's star from different facilities".
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But unlike Proxima b, which shows promising signs of habitability, Barnard's star b is likely inhospitable to life as we know it. Barnard's Star b now steps in as the second-closest known exoplanet to Earth and there is good reason to believe the planet may be a super-Earth. This is because Barnard's star is in the class of M dwarf stars, cooler and less massive than our sun.
"We think that this is what we call a Super-Earth - that would be possibly a mostly rocky planet with a massive atmosphere". The timing of the signal indicates that the planet orbits at about the same distance as Mercury orbits our Sun.
Nearby planets like this are likely to be prime targets in the search for signatures of life, using the next generation of telescopes. But nevertheless, the sheer number of observations builds a fairly compelling case that the planet is there.
"After a very careful analysis, we are 99% confident that the planet is there", team leader Ignasi Ribas of Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and the Institute of Space Sciences, CSIC in Spain, said in a statement.
Yet much about the planet around Barnard's Star remains uncertain. "Hopefully, we got it right this time", said Guillem Anglada Escude from Queen Mary's School of Physics and Astronomy. While not yet strong enough to rule out a false detection, the researchers figured out what it would mean anyway: a Neptune-sized planet orbiting slightly closer than Jupiter orbits in our Solar System.
Astronomers take advantage of this effect to measure the changes in a star's velocity due to an orbiting exoplanet - with astounding accuracy.
These methods haven't always been available to astronomers searching for exoplanets. It is worth noting, however, that the measurements place the planet at a similar period to van de Kamp's claims in the 1960s.
The potential planet is an excellent candidate for directing imaging and astrometric observations because of its wide orbit, researchers say, which could give us a look at the planet's surface.