‘Thick clouds’ spotted on planet near to Earth in new breakthrough

Rob Waugh
Picture Dana Berry

Astronomers have spotted a thick atmosphere – which may contain water on methane – on a rocky world a mere 40 light years from Earth.

The breakthrough on planet GJ 1132b could lead to a ‘new era’ in the search for other worlds which could sustain life, Scientific American reports.

A team at Keele University in England studied GJ 1132 b by watching the planet as it crossed the face of its star – and looking for the atmosphere absorbing light.

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John Southworth of Keele University says, ‘We have shown that an Earth-mass planet is capable of sustaining a thick atmosphere.

‘This is one step towards investigating whether a planet could host life.’

The planet, named GJ 1132b, is Earth-sized, orbiting a small star located a mere 39 light-years from Earth.

The surface of the planet is hot, meaning it might be more like Venus – and it’s tidally locked, meaning that it has a permanent day and night side, much like our moon.

Speaking to Scientific American, Julien de Wit of MIT said, ‘Detecting the atmosphere of Earth-sized planets around M-dwarfs is an essential step in the search for habitable exoplanets.

‘Finding one with an atmosphere would provide us with hope.’