Astronomers Discover Another Earth-Like Planet Near Our Solar System

ESO / M. Kornmesser
ESO / M. Kornmesser

Astronomers with the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have discovered an exoplanet orbiting a star just 11 light-years from our own Sun. It's roughly the size of Earth and is predicted to have a temperate climate, making it the second-nearest Earth-like planet known to exist.

As reported in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics [PDF], the planet, dubbed Ross 128 b, circles the inactive red dwarf star Ross 128. Its orbit is 20 times closer to its star than Earth's is to the Sun, but the exoplanet receives only 1.38 times more radiation than we do. Ross 128 is much cooler than our Sun, and calmer than typical red dwarfs. Researchers estimate the planet's equilibrium temperature to be between -76°F and 68°F, making it temperate like our home planet.

The discovery was made by an international team of astronomers working with the ESO's High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. Popular Mechanics reports that instead of waiting for the exoplanet's shadow to pass across its star (what's known as the transit method), the scientists monitored the star's radial velocity. The gravitational pull of orbiting planets can cause their stars to wobble slightly, and by measuring these disturbances, researchers can estimate everything from a planet's mass to its location.

At just 11 light-years away, Ross 128 b is close, though not close enough to make it our nearest Earth-like neighbor. That title belongs to Proxima b, a planet similar in size, mass, and temperature to Earth that orbits the star Proxima Centauri. But Ross 128 is creeping closer to Earth, and in just 79,000 years, it could occupy the No. 1 slot. In the meantime, scientists will study Ross 128 b along with other close exoplanets to determine if they can support life.

True or False: Was This Object Left on the Moon?

Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Discovered on International Space Station Toilet

Antibiotic resistance isn’t just a problem on Earth. It’s happening in space, too. LiveScience reports that NASA scientists have found drug-resistant bacteria in samples from one of the space toilets on the International Space Station.

As part of a study published in the journal BMC Microbiology, scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory looked at waste samples taken from the ISS in 2015. They isolated five strains of Enterobacter bugandensis bacteria, sequencing their genomes and analyzing their susceptibility to antibiotics. They compared these space strains to strains found on Earth, including some that have been linked to patients in hospital settings.

Normally, because of the lack of interplanetary sewers, astronaut waste is simply flushed into space, where it will incinerate on its way back through Earth’s atmosphere. But for the sake of NASA’s ongoing catalog of microbes found on the ISS, some lucky astronaut got to swab the station’s toilet for samples. They also swabbed the station’s Advanced Resistive Exercise Device, one of the exercise machines astronauts use on the ISS to keep up muscle mass during long periods living in microgravity.

A toilet on the ISS
The space toilet where astronauts collected microbial swabs
Jack Fischer, NASA

Based on their similarity to bacteria strains taken from patients on Earth, the analysis found that the strains isolated from the ISS swabs have a 79 percent probability that they could cause disease in humans. They contained genes associated with antibiotic resistance and toxic compounds.

"Given the multi-drug resistance results for these ISS E. bugandensis genomes and the increased chance of pathogenicity we have identified, these species potentially pose important health considerations for future missions,” the study's lead author, Dr. Nitin Singh, said in a statement. “However, it is important to understand that the strains found on the ISS were not virulent, which means they are not an active threat to human health, but something to be monitored." That means that while astronauts don't need to worry about these bacteria just yet, antibiotic resistance is an issue that NASA will need to prepare for in the future.

[h/t LiveScience]

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