Astronomers Discover A New Rocky Planet In The Virgo Constellation

Astronomers have discovered a new rocky planet in the Virgo constellation that could be the best chance yet for studying the atmospheres of such planets outside of our solar system. The planet is known as Gliese 486b and is classified as a super-Earth. That means it's a rocky planet larger than Earth but smaller than ice giants such as Neptune and Uranus.

Gliese 486b orbits a red dwarf star that's about 26 light-years away from Earth, making it a cosmic next-door neighbor. Surface temperatures on the planet are about 430 degrees Celsius, making the planet too hot to support human life. Scientists believe that studying the atmosphere of Gliese 486b could help learn if similar planets might be habitable for humans or if they might support other life.

A UNSW Sydney researcher says that this is the kind of planet scientists have been dreaming about for decades. Researchers have known that Rocky super-Earth's exist around nearby stars but have lacked the technology to find them until very recently. The finding has the potential to transform how scientists understand planetary atmospheres.

The only similarity Gliese 486b has to Earth is that it's a rocky planet. It's 30 percent larger than Earth and nearly three times heavier. With surface temperatures hot enough to melt lead, the planet is probably covered in glowing lava rivers. While super-Earth planets are common, there are two big reasons why Gliese 486b is special.

One of the reasons is that its atmosphere is "puffed up" by heat, helping astronomers take atmospheric measurements. The second reason is that it's a transiting planet crossing over its star from our perspective here on Earth, allowing scientists to conduct an in-depth analysis of the planet's atmosphere. Gliese 486b is the type of planet scientists will be studying for decades to come.