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Scientists Spot 2 Potentially Habitable Exo-Earths Not Far Away

There are a lot of unknowns about these planets, but they're hanging out in a habitable zone.

Illustration shows a blue-ish planet in the lower left corner, a more distance rocky planet in the upper middle and a glowing red dwarf star near the upper right.
An illustration shows what the two Earth-mass planets orbiting star GJ 1002 might look like.
Alejandro Suárez Mascareño and Inés Bonet/IAC

Please give a hearty cosmic welcome to GJ 1002b and GJ 1002c, two of the newest entries on the list of planets that give us hope of finding another Earth-like world. They're roughly the mass of Earth and reside in the habitable zone (where liquid water might exist) of their solar system. They're just under 16 light-years away from us.

A team led by researchers at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, or IAC, wrote a study on the exoplanets (planets located outside our own solar system) that's forthcoming in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. IAC described them as two potentially habitable exo-Earths.

"Nature seems bent on showing us that Earth-like planets are very common. With these two we now know seven in planetary systems quite near to the sun," said IAC researcher Alejandro Suárez Mascareño in a statement last week, in a reference to exoplanets found relatively close to our own solar system.   

This infographic shows the relative distance from the star of the GJ 1002 planets as compared with the planets in our own solar system. Green marks the potentially habitable zone.

Design: Alejandro Suárez Mascareño/IAC. Planets of the Solar System: NASA

In space-distance terms, 16 light-years isn't far. But the reality of human space travel means we won't be popping over there for a visit anytime soon.  

The planets orbit GJ 1002, a "cool, faint" red dwarf star. "This means that its habitability zone is very close to the star," said IAC researcher Vera María Passegger. Inner planet GJ 1002b takes about 10 days to orbit the star while GJ1002 needs just over 21 days. 

Just because a planet is roughly the mass of Earth and is located in a habitable zone doesn't mean it has life on it. Stars are notoriously fickle. Take the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri for example. Astronomers observed it kicking out a huge solar flare that likely blasted orbiting planet Proxima b with radiation. If anything was alive on the surface, it probably got toasted.

Future studies of the GJ 1002 planets could clue us in to what's happening with their atmospheres. Their relative closeness to us makes them attractive targets for a deeper investigation. Though much remains unknown about these planets, they'll continue to feed the human hope of finding habitable worlds beyond our own.