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X-ray astronomy

The exoplanet’s sun, a tiny body known as Barnard’s Star, is one of our solar system’s nearest neighbors. The only stars closer are the triplet stars of the Alpha Centauri system, which is mainly visible in the southern sky. One of those stars, Proxima Centauri, is orbited by a small planet, but the star’s tendency to spew flares of deadly radiation means its planet is unlikely to be habitable.

Barnard’s Star has long been “the great white whale” of exoplanet hunting, said Carnegie astronomer Paul Butler, a co-author on the Nature paper. It’s just six light-years from our sun, and possibly twice as old. One of the main architects of exoplanet research, the astronomer Peter van de Kamp, proposed more than 50 years ago that this star could host a planet. In the 1970s, British astronomers studied the possibility of sending an uncrewed starship to probe the alien system — even though there wasn’t any evidence a planet existed to be explored.

But it wasn’t until the first exoplanet discovery was confirmed in 1995 that the search for a world around Barnard’s Star began in earnest.

This red dwarf is a 10th the mass of our sun and too faint to be seen with the naked eye. But its low mass makes it ideal for analysis using the radial velocity technique of exoplanet detection, which exploits the way a planet’s gravitational pull makes a star wobble as it orbits around it.