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ASTRONOMY

Spanish astronomers discover a whole new world and it could sustain life

Astronomers have identified a new solar system with a planet that could be habitable, a Spanish astrophysicist who led the research said Thursday.

Spanish astronomers discover a whole new world and it could sustain life
Photo: NASA

Three new planets were discovered orbiting GJ 357, a red dwarf — a small and cooling star — 31 light years away, relatively close in space terms, said Rafael Luque of Spain's Institute of Astrophysics in the Canary Islands.

The discovery was also reported by NASA, whose TESS planet-hunting satellite made it possible.

The planet known as GJ 257d — the furthest away from the star — was particularly intriguing as researchers estimate it could be habitable. The other two are deemed too hot.

Signs of habitability in any planet include a rocky terrain, a size similar to Earth and a distance from their sun — the temperate “Goldilocks” zone neither too close nor too far — that allows the right temperature for liquid water, a key requirement for life.   

Given its distance from its star, similar to that of Mars to our Sun, researchers estimate the planet has temperatures of -53 degrees Celsius (-63.4 Fahrenheit), Luque told AFP.

“That seems a little cold at first,” he said.   

But “if this planet had an atmosphere (unlike Mars), it could retain the heat it receives from its star, and water could be liquid.”   

Researchers also estimate GJ 257d could be roughly the same size as Earth or up to twice the size.

It is not the first potentially habitable planet to have been discovered close to us.

In 2016, the discovery of Proxima b at a mere four light years from the Solar System made waves.   

But there is a hitch.   

Proxima b and GJ 257d were discovered via so-called radial velocity, which involves looking for signs of a wobble in a star from the gravitational tug of an orbiting planet.

But Luque says the method is not precise enough to ascertain whether it actually is habitable. 

As things stand, in order to measure its size, density and composition, the planet has to pass directly between its star and an observer, the so-called “transit” method, he says.   

That has not been possible for Proxima b and other nearer potentially habitable planets, Luque says.

In the coming months, Luque and his team will be working to try and catch GJ 257d in “transit” to try and confirm it as a habitable planet.   

“The probability that a planet passes in front of a star from our line of vision on Earth is pretty small,” he adds.

READ MORE: Spain reaches for the stars with astronomy travel agency 

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ASTRONOMY

Perseid meteor shower 2017: When and where to see it in Spain

Look up to the night skies as this year’s Perseid meteor shower reaches its peak. Here’s everything you need to know for a night of stargazing in Spain.

Perseid meteor shower 2017: When and where to see it in Spain
Shooting stars over Tilde. Photo: Miguel Serra-Ricart / Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias

When: 

The shower has been active since the 13th of July and will continue until the end of August. But activity will peak this week, when the best stargazing expected between the nights of 9th and 13th of August.

Stay up late or for the best results rise early as some of the best showings occur just before dawn.

Where:

The meteorite shower is visible across the northern hemisphere but will be especially good in southern Europe.

Find a place as far away from light pollution as possible so head to wide open spaces away from the city. Mountains and beaches are perfect. Then face northeast and enjoy the show.

If you are near an observatory then check the programme for Perseid related events. Madrid, Tenerife, Toledo and the planetarium in Pamplona are among those to stage viewings.

How:

The shooting stars are visible to the naked eye so no need for binoculars or a telescope but allow yourself to become accustomed to the darkness which usually takes around 20 minutes. And have patience as the shower comes in spurts – nothing for a while and then a sudden flurry of activity.

What it is:

In Spanish the phenomenon is known as Lágrimas de San Lorenzo – the tears of St Lawrence – because the best viewing nights often occur around the  feast day on August 10th of the Spanish saint martyred in 258 AD.

Shooting stars are caused by tiny flecks of comet hitting the earth’s atmosphere. The Perseids occur annually when the orbit of Earth crosses into the tail of the comet Swift-Tuttle.

The Perseids are named after the constellation Perseus because that is where the meteors seem to originate from when looking up at the sky.