A team of Chilean and international astronomers have found a planet only 22 light years from Earth that may have the potential to support life, through research conducted under the clear skies of the Atacama Desert.
The alien world was discovered at Cerro La Silla, 370 miles (600 km) north of Santiago, using the Planet Finder Spectrograph, which is part of the European Southern Observatory (ESO).
It is located in a “goldilocks zone,” say researchers, not too hot and not too cold: a slim margin where water, and potentially life, could exist. “This planet is the best candidate to develop life,” said team member Dante Minniti, an astronomer from Universidad Católica, to El Mercurio. “There will always be candidates, but this one is smack in the middle of the habitable area.”
The planet itself is a “super-earth,” 4.5 times larger than Earth. Just 22 light years away from us, orbiting around the sun GJ667C, it is located the shortest distance yet discovered between Earth and a planet in the “goldilocks zone” – most of the others are thousands of light years away.
“The detection of this planet, this nearby and this soon, implies that our galaxy must be teeming with billions of potentially habitable rocky planets,” said fellow group astronomer Steven Vogt.
And the research team is hopeful that further discoveries like this one may be made soon. “With the advent of a new generation of instruments, researchers will be able to survey many M dwarf stars for similar planets and eventually look for spectroscopic signatures of life in one of these worlds,” said team leader Guillem Anglada-Escudé.
Plans are now underway for a new telescope to be built in the region, which is used by astronomers from all over the world to push the boundaries of knowledge about outer space, due to its uniquely clear skies. The new equipment would be used to explore planets like the one just discovered, to better measure if there is observable water or life.