This is pretty huge.
This is the first time atmosphere has ever been detected around a planet with a mass and radius so similar to Earth’s, and that makes it a hugely promising (and exciting) target for researchers searching for signs of extraterrestrial life.
“While this is not the detection of life on another planet, it’s an important step in the right direction: the detection of an atmosphere around the super-Earth GJ 1132b marks the first time that an atmosphere has been detected around an Earth-like planet other than Earth itself,” said lead researcher John Southworth from Keele University in the UK.
There’s still a lot to learn about GJ 1132b’s atmosphere, but early observations suggest it could be a “‘water world’ with an atmosphere of hot steam” – AKA, a pretty awesome place to go looking for life.
So far, we know that GJ 1132b has a mass about 1.6 times that of Earth’s, and has roughly 1.4 times its radius – which in terms of exoplanets makes it remarkably similar to our home planet.
But as with all exoplanet discoveries, the researchers are quick to remind the public that the observations to date still really don’t give us much insight into how similar GJ 1132b could be to Earth – or how habitable.
Some bad news upfront is it has an estimated surface temperature of 370 degrees Celsius (698 degrees Fahrenheit), which makes it unlikely that it could host life like us.
And let’s not forget that we’ve recently been burned by the detection of the TRAPPIST-1 ‘sister solar system’ and neighbouring Earth-like planet Proxima b, both of which are unlikely to be the friendly places for life we first thought they were.
But none of those planets had ever gotten as far as having an atmosphere detected, so GJ 1132b is already doing pretty well in terms of a spot that could potentially host life.
Right now, the top strategy for astronomers in the search for life on another planet is to detect the chemical composition of that planet’s atmosphere, looking for certain chemical imbalances that could hint at the presence of living organisms. For example, on Earth, the large amount of oxygen in our atmosphere is that ‘smoking gun’.